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ATK Tracks Composite Aircraft Parts Manufactured at Its Plant

As the company prepares for 12-fold growth, it is using passive UHF RFID tags to monitor the lifespan of composite materials, and to track the production of aircraft parts and the molds used to form them.
By Claire Swedberg
May 14, 2013

Aircraft are becoming lighter as composite materials replace metal in their components and airframes. Commercial aircraft component manufacturer ATK is employing a variety of new technologies to innovate the construction of aircraft parts and structures made with composite materials—which, compared with metal, improves an aircraft's fuel efficiency and increases its payload capacity. In commercial aircraft, the percentage of carbon fiber used in 1980 was less than 5 percent; it is expected to become the dominant material by 2015.

To accommodate this expected growth, ATK implemented a radio frequency identification system provided by OATSystems to track perishable composite material and associated tooling. Frozen composite material is being tracked via RFID, thereby ensuring that it is moved efficiently through the component-fabrication process. RFID reader portals are also being used to track the location of tooling, which the company utilizes to form the aircraft components, prior to the items being cured at high temperatures and pressure.

A work cell at which an ATK worker fabricates composite stringers for the Airbus A350

The solution, ATK reports, will help it create what the company calls a "visual factory," making it possible for employees to view work-in-progress based on RFID tag reads. With the RFID system, the firm can meet requirements from such customers as Airbus and Boeing, which will produce more than 8,000 fuel-efficient composite aircraft combined over the next six years. RFID automation will enable ATK to further ramp up production 12-fold to meet the aggressive delivery targets for Airbus' A350 XWB. As of this month, ATK indicates, Airbus has received 616 pre-orders for the new aircraft, which is scheduled for first deliveries later this year. At peak production, ATK expects it will produce enough composite components each month for the A350 fuselage alone to stretch 25 miles in length.

Manufacturing composite parts requires a process of cutting, forming and curing advanced composite materials, rather than using metal components. To track this process at high volumes, ATK installed the RFID solution at its Aircraft Commercial Center of Excellence (ACCE), located in Clearfield, Utah. The facility is where ATK fabricates composite airframe and engine components for the A350 XWB, as well as composite engine components for Rolls-Royce and General Electric Aviation.

Prior to installing the technology at the ACCE in April 2012, ATK and OAT tested RFID technology on a smaller-scale project at an adjacent ATK manufacturing facility, where composite structures for F-22 and F-35 military aircraft are produced (see RFID Takes Wing at Composite Aircraft Components Plant). As part of that test, ATK applied EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tags to composite materials used to fabricate curved structural components, and read those tags via fixed interrogators as they moved into and out of storage freezers. The company's priority was to gain visibility into material location and remaining usable life. The materials are highly perishable, and must be transported, stored and monitored at subzero temperatures. Generally, if a piece of composite material spends more than 700 hours out of a freezer, the material degrades and must be discarded.

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