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Airbus to RFID-Tag and Track All Parts Made In-House
The initiative will use new hybrid RFID Integrated Nameplates created by Brady, Tego and Fujitsu.
One new Lighthouse project, the Smart Factory, was first deployed on an A400M wing assembly line in Filton, England, using a combination of active and passive RFID tags to track tools and parts in real time. The factory began by tagging tools, and then started tagging the wings themselves and their parts, as well as collecting work-in-progress data. The company later opted to use the technology to monitor logistics containers and safety equipment.
Airbus realized that the RFID data it was collecting was beginning to provide a large integrated picture of what was occurring on the assembly floor. "We call it Smart Factory," Nizam said. "It's a culmination of different capabilities." With RFID, the company can know if a tool is not where it should be located, maintain a record of which tools were used on a particular wing, and track each wing's assembly progress. "We can represent all info in 2 and 3D, create zones, know if tool is left behind and set up a proactive alert. It becomes a very powerful system." Since the Smart Factory concept's introduction to the A400M assembly line in Filton, it has been expanded to the company's A330 and A350 final assembly lines in Toulouse, France.
Building on that success, Airbus is just finishing a project consisting of tracking parts via RFID tags at eight manufacturing sites for A380 aircraft, involving 10 buildings in four countries. The A380 VIP project is designed to provide a centralized, global, real-time automated view into the build progress across all assembly plants. Every month, the company's executive VP of operations meets with all plant managers to review any potential problems related to the A380's production. Prior to the RFID system's implementation, information was not always ready in time for the meeting, since it took several weeks to gather data from all plants. To resolve this problem, Airbus put tags on aircraft sections, installed a reader network within each factory and began tracking those sections, collecting data instantly, every 30 seconds that it was refreshed.
The company realized it could thereby collect a great deal of information for every assembly station and each A380 passing through that station. Airbus can then attribute financial values to different portions of the assembly process, based on each component's movement through production.
Airbus' nameplate program for internal parts is the result of an effort to improve on the traditional part-marking process, which amounts to attaching a yellow paper label to each part. The papers are then used at various steps throughout assembly, though they do not travel to the airline. However, Nizam noted, there are various steps during which airline and maintenance operators can also benefit from the marking. If a part is then sent back to Airbus or another company for repair, he said, there is a tremendous opportunity to use that marking data as well.
Traditionally, tracing parts requires a great deal of paper. The yellow label attached to each component usually includes handwritten data, and is utilized at various steps along the manufacturing process. When the part is installed, its label is removed and placed temporarily into a box located near the bottom of the plane. A worker then takes that box to an office and types information into the computer. "Every part has a yellow label," Nizam explained, "but as it goes through the system, we add more paper, until we get to a point where we have lots of paper." The process has not changed much throughout the past three or four decades, he added. What's more, the number of parts being manufactured is increasing, which puts even more pressure on the tracking process. "We are going to have a data issue, and need to move toward a paperless system—remove that paperwork so our suppliers no longer have to provide that paperwork," he said. "We believe very strongly the part-mark capability can improve how we trace things, not just for us but the whole value chain."
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