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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

By using data related to the reading of tags on materials as they are moved into and out of freezers, the software tracks each unique item's out time. During the pilot, OAT and ATK tested various locations at which to install the readers, as well as directional algorithms for antenna transmission, and the integration of read data with ATK's shop-floor and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. As the pilot was carried out, ATK found that it needed to add additional readers and antennas at each freezer, in order to determine the directionality of the materials moving into and out of the cooling units.

The company had previously utilized bar codes to track the movement of composite material, so the RFID system was tested against bar codes. "The initial read results were in the 95 to 100 percent range," says Jim Morgan, program manager for ATK's aerospace structures project management office (PMO). After additional testing and system enhancements were carried out to increase read rates, ATK opted to install the system throughout the ACCE facility. The solution was taken live in April 2012.

ATK manufactures composite fan cases for the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engine, used in Airbus' A350 aircraft.

The ACCE's system consists of Zebra Technologies RZ400 printer-encoders to print the RFID labels and encode their embedded Alien Technology Squiggle inlays. The labels are then applied to rolls of composite material via AS3 freezer-grade adhesive, as the rolls are received. Impinj Speedway R420 RFID readers at the dock doors read the newly tagged composite materials, thereby tracking when those items were received. The tags are again interrogated as the materials enter and leave the freezer, thus creating a date and time record for each event.

In addition, ATK is attaching Xerafy MicroX II tags to the tools on which its composite products are formed and cured within autoclave ovens at high temperatures and pressure. The system enables ATK to identify the number of times a tool has been used during the forming and curing processes, and to ensure that the tool is recalibrated once it has reached the specific number of uses authorized since its most recent recalibration.

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