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Boeing's Flight Plan for Dreamliner Tags

The company told a group of RFID vendors this week that its suppliers need a robust, durable passive tag to place on parts for its fleet of Dreamliner 787 aircraft. And they need it soon.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 28, 2005Earlier this month, Boeing announced it would require many of its suppliers to begin placing RFID tags on a number of parts used in its latest line of commercial airliners, the Dreamliner 787. The airplane manufacturer believes the tags would make it easier for Boeing and its customers to track the parts' maintenance histories (see Boeing Wants Dreamliner Parts Tagged).

As in most large RFID deployments, this one will have technology hurdles to clear. For one thing, the RFID tags Boeing wants its suppliers to use don't yet exist. As such, the company invited more than 20 RFID chip and inlay manufacturers and smart label converters to Seattle's Museum of Flight Tuesday for a daylong meeting to describe what it wants in a tag, and when.

"We need tagged parts within 18 months," Kenneth Porad, program manager for automated identification programs at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told attendees. But that's not the tag manufacturers' deadline—rather, for Boeing to receive the tagged parts in 18 months, its suppliers will need the tags much sooner.

"Our first [parts] are due [to Boeing] in one year, so we need the tags in less than one year," said David Meyer, manufacturing program manager for Rockwell Collins, a supplier of electronics for communications and aviations. Additionally, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will need time to assess all parts to which tags will be added. This will let them ensure that the tags do not pose any fire or other hazards while the planes are in operation, according to John Dimtroff, the FAA's national policy maker for electromagnetic effects, who also spoke at the event.

During the meeting, Daryl Remily, deputy program manager of automated identification for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, spelled out the key requirements for the tags. As Boeing announced earlier this month, the tags should meet the ISO 18000-6C candidate standard air interface protocol, based on the same specifications as EPCglobal's Gen 2 tag, and include 64 kilobytes of memory. They must function when mounted on metal, because many of the parts to be tagged are largely or completely made of metal. They must also withstand extremely high and low temperatures, as well as vibration, humidity, salt spray and the many other environmental conditions listed in the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) DO-160, which describes standard procedures and environmental criteria for testing airborne equipment used on aircraft. The weight of the tags is another important issue. The Dreamliner design offers a weight savings compared with other planes, but Boeing and its airline customers don't want to see that savings lost because of the tags' addition.

The form factor each tag takes will be dependent on the part to which it will be attached. Some will be rigid, others flexible. In some cases, the tag may need to be housed in protective material, and size is another concern. Many parts requiring tags are smaller than the common 2- by 3-inch label.

Boeing hopes the tags will last for up to 20 years. It's a tall order with a quick turnaround time, and Porad and other Boeing speakers stressed the importance of chip makers to work closely with tag manufactures and label converters to develop the RFID labels needed to meet the company’s requirements.

At the close of the meeting, Porad invited all vendors present to send Boeing a letter within the next 30 days, indicating their interest in working further with Boeing and its suppliers to develop the required RFID tags. The letter would not need to include pricing and delivery details. "This is not a request for proposal," said Porad. Rather, Boeing is soliciting chip and tag makers to develop products to meet the memory and performance requirements Boeing has set forth, and to offer these products to its suppliers.

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