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RFID Helps Aerospace Factories Manage Small Parts

Supplier City Solutions' system is designed to help workers easily identify which bins require replenishing, thereby ensuring that no parts run out when needed on the production floor.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 24, 2016

Tracking small parts used in aircraft manufacturing is a task that requires effort on the part of both suppliers and manufacturers to ensure that those items, such as fasteners or bolts, never run out when needed. At some factories, parts suppliers dispatch personnel to determine what is in stock, while some aircraft manufacturers have their own employees perform an inventory count. In either case, the process is typically carried out visually, sometimes in conjunction with bar-code scans, though that can be time-consuming and could potentially lead to errors.

Supplier City Solutions (SCS), a technology company based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., has developed an RFID-based alternative. The company has been providing supply chain software solutions to businesses in the aerospace industry—both manufacturers and suppliers—for the past 30 years, and some of its solutions involve using a bar-code scanner to monitor which small parts are used. That information not only ensures that parts do not run out, but also helps a company link an item's lot and batch numbers with the particular aircraft being built. Last year, SCS added RFID technology to its solutions to automate the process of collecting supply chain information. Since then, both aerospace companies and their suppliers have begun utilizing the technology to automate the collection of data regarding part use at factories.

With the TwinBin system, when the bottom receptacle is emptied, a red flag indicator pops up and an RF-blocking shield is raised so that an individual assigned to conduct a parts inventory check can read the RFID tag.
SCS is also selling an RFID-based version of the system for tracking liquids stored in containers, such as liquid adhesives. By reading the containers' tags, users can not only verify what is located in a specific cabinet, but also ascertain whether those items are soon scheduled to reach their expiration dates. Supplier City Solutions focuses on offering a low-cost alternative to other RFID systems that might require a fixed infrastructure of readers and an investment in integrated software, says Jim Grason, the company's CEO and cofounder.

The RFID-based parts-tracking solution is known as the Scan Only bin-replenishment system, for which SCS partners with Hurst Green Plastics, a U.K. company that makes the TwinBin—a kanban-style container with two receptacles for storing parts. SCS provides a Zebra Technologies MC3190-Z handheld reader loaded with Portable Technology Solutions' TracerPlus software for managing RFID data.

Once the receptacle on the bottom is empty, the top one opens automatically, dropping a second batch of parts into that bin. At the same time, a notification must be sent to identify that the top TwinBin dispenser is ready to be refilled. To accomplish this, each bin comes with two passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 RFID tags. One is a shielded Alien Technology Squiggle tag incorporated into a visual replenishment flag indicator (the flag is designed to get the attention of individuals counting inventory). Once nothing remains in the bottom receptacle, the spring latch is released, causing a flag indicator to pop up and the shield to be raised, so that the tag can be read by an individual assigned to conduct a parts inventory check. The unique ID number encoded to that tag is linked to that receptacle, enabling users to know which part needs to be replenished, as well as its location.

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