Former IT system integrated logistics functions, improved DLA's project management

By Colin Jay Williams DLA Historian

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Technology can undergo much failure before it enters the market. Such is the case with the Standard Automated Materiel Management System, which the Defense Logistics Agency launched in 1971 to integrate common logistics functions across multiple supply chains. Though it was replaced in the 2000s, SAMMS increased effectiveness and forced DLA to improve its project management.

DLA Headquarters started implementing SAMMS in 1964 by forming a team with programming experience. Called the Defense Systems Automation Office because it ostensibly served the entire Defense Department, the team wrote code that interfaced five functions: requirements, distribution, cataloging, procurement and finance. Assuming that testing, selection, purchasing and deployment would follow naturally once design was complete, DLA planned to field the system in 1967.

Problems with selecting an operating system delayed the project. Neither of the two companies that responded to the agency’s solicitation had a computer that could process data sequentially at the speed DLA desired. While the more expensive system had a multi-processing function that met the agency’s standard, using it meant that the best computer on the market had to operate at maximum capacity to conduct the minimum required of it. More lines of code – essential for the alternations necessary to adapt the program to individual supply chains – couldn’t be added. DLA chose the more expensive system but had to re-engineer the program.

In 1971, four years after the expected deployment, the Government Accounting Office criticized DLA for not assigning SAMMS a program manager whose sole job was overseeing the project’s development. The Defense Systems Automation Office was responsible for design but not acquisition or deployment. Without an overall manager to guide it, the office produced a program suitable for specially built, room-sized, computers. It was cost prohibitive and too complex for off-the-shelf technology.

DLA leaders informed the GAO of recent program changes and installed SAMMS only a few months later at the Defense Construction Supply Center in Columbus, Ohio. Performance improved immediately. Before the year ended, the system reduced back orders from 153,000 to 64,000, increased material availability from 78.9% to 89.8% and increased the on-time fill rate from 61.8% to 71.5%. It did so with 354 fewer people.

Other parts of the agency realized similar improvements in 1973 when DLA installed SAMMS at the Defense General Supply Center in Richmond, Virginia; Defense Electronics Supply Center in Dayton, Ohio; and Defense Industrial Supply Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. SAMMS unified most of the agency’s transactions, although the Defense Systems Automation Office had to alter the program to accommodate differences in medical, clothing and textile supply chains, as well as design different systems for fuel and subsistence supply chains.

SAMMS became revolutionary later in the decade when DLA connected it to the Defense Integrated Data System and Standard Automated Materiel Management Telecommunication System. DIDS digitized information on the 7 million federal catalog items controlled by the agency. Its association with SAMMS meant users could search for parts and order them online. SAMMSTEL used cathode-ray tubes to connect users to the DLA Net, a precursor to the internet. Instead of batching transactions, centers could transmit any time of the day.

SAMMS hit peak efficiency in the 1980s, then began a slow decline. DLA Headquarters abandoned attempts to replace the system five times in the 1990s. The program didn’t have a suitable replacement until Business Systems Modernization in the 2000s. Most people remember SAMMS of the 1990s, when the commercial market surpassed the system, rather than SAMMS of the 1970s, when the technology was revolutionary.

Introducing new technology remains as challenging today as it was when DLA struggled to implement SAMMS in the 1960s. Computers transformed logistics then and can do so again. One need only to look at the Warehouse Management System, additive manufacturing and artificial intelligence to see that the promise of technology hasn't faded. And while program designers play a large role in its success, acquisition and deployment are equally important.