The defense industry, along with aerospace and healthcare, is one of the most heavily regulated business sectors in the world. Many public and private entities on a national and international level define specifications that help protect public interests and maintain safe working environments. One such program, created by the United States Department of Defense (DoD), is the Unique Identification (UID) system to control the marking and tracking of military assets.
All defense industry manufacturers that supply assets that meet the program’s requirements are responsible for labeling their products using an appropriate method. In this detailed guide, we’ll discuss why the UID program was created, how it operates, the requirements, and where to find practical information to help you select appropriate labels for your asset markings. This is a complex topic, and the goal of this guide is to create a framework to better understand the program by defining the basic parameters.
In this guide we’ll discuss:
The U.S. DoD first launched the UID program in 2003 to unify the methodology for marking critical U.S. military assets. Information defined in these early years of the program included planning guidelines, basic standards, labeling requirements, and management techniques. This process has dramatically streamlined asset management for the U.S. military and its supply chain partners. It has also provided the government with a reliable system that is audit-ready and contains a complete historical record for all designated property.
An important part of the ongoing management of the UID program is the oversight provided by the General Accounting Office (GAO). The GAO helps to define and manage identified issues with the UID system and seeks to influence military policy. These efforts, along with other improvements pursued by the military and vendors, have led to numerous revisions over the years. As a military supplier, understanding this history and future plans will help you become an active participant in streamlining this important process.
A central component of the UID program is the IUID Registry, which houses all asset information for the system. The military defines the purpose of this database to “support full lifecycle visibility for tangible items, integrating financial, maintenance, and accountability systems.” The registry contains important information about each asset such as item cost, location, chain of custody, and current marking. Vendors and military personnel can access the registry through the U.S. DoD Procurement Toolbox. Some basic marking and implementation information along with an FAQ is also provided on the website to help guide you to the right resources.
The term Item Unique Identification (IUID) most often refers to the registry while the term Unique Identification (UID) most often refers to the program or an identifying label itself. They are sometimes used interchangeably by vendors and other groups when discussing different aspects of the marking protocols, so it is important to understand these definitions. Another term you may come across is Unique Item Identifier (UII) which defines the specific code and serialized number that is entered in the IUID registry for an item. It must be machine-readable and designed to meet certain requirements which we will discuss in the next section.
The UID program provides many tangible benefits to the U.S. military and its suppliers and partners. For example, this uniform tagging system allows these companies to align their scanning and sensing hardware used for inventory check-in and check-out at various locations. Additional benefits of the UID program include:
Any supplier that wishes to do business with the U.S. government should consider these benefits and work to identify ways to enable greater integration with government systems. The UID label itself may be a critical component of military asset management, but it will be impossible to oversee a global supply infrastructure without many other connected resources.
The UID labeling requirements are defined in a series of military specifications that are updated periodically with new information. It is important to consult these documents to gain a better understanding of the labeling requirements and to prepare for any future changes. The two primary documents that define the UID labeling requirements are:
These two documents together define the guidelines for labeling and marking each asset that falls under the defined requirements. The MIL-STD-130 standard is of particular use for label design and contains definitions for several factors such as text size, syntax, and fonts. Every UID label must conform to these guidelines before being placed on an asset. In simple terms, a military asset will require a UID label if the item:
These definitions are a good starting point for understanding the scope of the UID program. There may also be additional specifications that should be considered when selecting and designing specific asset labels. In addition to the MIL-STD documents above, the following specifications also provide useful information.
Military vendor requirements related to the UID program are defined in DFARS 252.211-70003. The specification MIL-DTL-15024 contains a detailed description of physical qualities that bands, tags, and plates should possess when used for the purpose of marking military equipment. Some suppliers provide equipment to the military and other agencies and businesses.
This can create a supply chain management challenge where multiple requirements must be integrated into a single series of products. For this reason, it may also be beneficial to consult standards from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). One example related to the UID program is ISO/IEC CD 16022, which discusses Data Matrix bar code symbology specifications for technology that uses automatic identification and data capture techniques.
When selecting labels and nameplates for UID-compliant assets, it is very important to choose an appropriate format, substrate material, and barcode design. Failing to create a suitable marking can result in damaged labels or even fines and other penalties. In this section, we’ll describe a few recommended steps for choosing a UID label for military assets.
Label Format. The general format for a UID-compliant label is specified in MIL-STD-130 and must be a Construct #1 or Construct #2 format. A Construct #1 label uses a part number, barcode, and a supplier-assigned serial number that must be unique to any other products produced by that company. The Construct #2 format uses a lot/batch number, part number, and serial number that is taken directly from the original asset. Label text and sizing can be determined by the supplier to some degree if the design is in alignment with the MIL-STD-130 standard.
Substrate Material. The first step in choosing a substrate material is defining the application requirements for the asset to which the label will be attached. Some general application examples are aerospace equipment, industrial processes, and military vehicles. Equipment may be exposed to various extreme conditions during use such as weather, corrosive materials, or high/low temperatures. As a result, a good rule of thumb is to select a label that is at least as durable as the underlying asset. Popular substrate materials often selected for use with military equipment including UID assets are:
Barcode Design. The recommended barcode symbology for UID labels is the 2D data matrix format. One of the main reasons why 2D barcodes are used is the higher density of data that can be encoded in the same physical space as compared to 1D barcodes. For an in-depth comparison of 1D vs 2D barcodes see our detailed guide to barcodes vs QR codes. The 2D Data Matrix format can store up to 2000 characters and is a globally recognized symbology. In certain situations, an encrypted Data Matrix code is allowed to protect particularly sensitive products and information.
Metalphoto®, in particular, is an excellent choice for UID labels. It’s recognized by the National Association of Graphic and Product Identification Manufacturers (GPI) as the most durable material among aluminum substrates and earned the highest score among IUID (Item Unique Identification) label materials in an environmental sustainability report from the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Corona Division in 2011.
Metalphoto meets MIL-STD-130N requirements for UID labels along with a number of other defense and government specifications, such as:
While you should always way your application’s unique requirements with regulatory specifications and the durability of various substrate materials for the asset’s expected operating conditions, Metalphoto labels are often the ideal choice for their unmatched durability and expected exterior lifespan of more than 20 years, even when exposed to harsh environmental conditions such as heat, humidity, sustained harsh weather conditions, UV, salt spray, abrasion, and industrial solvents and chemicals.
Military partners that supply UID-compliant assets must also develop a reliable inventory and asset management program of their own. Many companies are now trying to implement world-class inventory management practices to differentiate their businesses from competitors. A strong internal inventory process not only improves your own operational efficiency but also makes it easier to transfer products seamlessly between military organizations. The inventory management software platforms that are best suited for defense products often include military-grade security, AI-powered analytics, and detailed chain-of-custody and audit records.
Another essential implementation step to consider is the design of your label application process. The placement and orientation of a UID asset label are both very important to ensure that the label is properly affixed to the underlying asset surface and will not become detached over time. UID barcode labels most often use an adhesive or mechanical means, like bolts or screws, to seal them in place. The orientation of a label can also affect the ability of staff to scan barcodes effectively and should be considered as well.
One final process that should be reviewed is the auditing capability of your inventory management system. The ability to track a complete chain of custody for each part is an excellent resource that can be used to respond to inventory inquiries and prepare for formal audits. Many modern software platforms can also be integrated with other software tools and it may be possible to connect directly to the systems of your own suppliers. Automating steps in your supply chain, manufacturing, and delivery processes can greatly improve the effectiveness of your operation.
Even with clear guidelines in place, many of the decisions required to properly label military assets must be made by the supplier. As a result, proper planning and teamwork are required at all levels of the supply chain network. We’ve provided this guide as a solid starting point in creating a UID label program that can meet the stringent requirements defined by the U.S. Military and other partners. At times, asset labels can seem insignificant when compared to the many other product specifications to consider, but they play an essential role in asset management for the world’s largest military.
For additional details about UID labeling requirements and compliance in the military and defense industry please visit the following resources: