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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

Because each tool is unique to the part or component being fabricated, the reading of the item's tag at the entrance to the ACCE's various work cells (work stations) at which the tools are used provides the company with a record of when each specific type of component has been formed, bagged (placed in a plastic bag and compressed via a vacuum) and cured, and when it is then ready for the final manufacturing processes prior to shipping. Once the component is removed from its tool, the part's bar-coded label serves as the unique identifier that is scanned through the remaining workstations. ATK is currently testing the feasibility of embedding a UHF RFID tag in the components, in order to eliminate the bar-code labels.

Altogether, the system installed at the ACCE consists of 115 Speedway R420 readers, 460 Impinj far-field reader antennas, 15 RZ400 printer-encoders and seven Motorola MC9090-Z handheld readers, to be used for exceptions, cycle counting or locating tools and materials.

RFID read data is received, interpreted and integrated with ATK's existing management systems by OATSystems' OATenterprise software. Part of that suite, OATxpress, manages RFID devices—including printers and readers—and also generates RFID labels for attachment to composite materials, for tracking those materials' movements into and out of freezers. The OATxpress software pushes data to the shop floor and ERP systems, and then forwards real-time material-tracking data via messaging to OATSystems' software at the ACCE.

"All objectives are related to measurable efficiencies," Morgan states. "If we know where tools and materials are, we enhance our efficiency, and we don't have operators looking for tools or materials." In addition, he says, the system helps the company detect expired material before it can be used. "If material has expired, there is an indication on the visual monitor in the work cells."

RFID has been a critical asset for the company, according to Brian Andrus, the IT director of ATK's aerospace structures division. "Without the ability to automate the tracking of these innovative manufacturing processes," he explains, "it would be difficult to deliver on commercial contracts, which have significant production-rate increases over the next couple years."

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