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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
One important detail still to be ironed out is data security. Boeing says that it would like some type of authentication and/or data encryption to be built into the tag. At the Nov. 15 meeting of the Automated Identification and Data Capture Task Force (a subset of the Air Transport Association in Chicago, Boeing, along with a dozen or so of its suppliers and airline customers on the task force, plans to hash out what this security standard should be. Porad chairs this task force and its members have been influential in developing the airplane part tag requirements thus far.

Sue Hutchinson, director of product management for EPCglobal US, explained that a tag created to meet Boeing's present tag requirements could fall under the EPCglobal Gen 2 standard. Still, if participants of the Nov. 15 meeting decide to require data encryption, EPCglobal might possibly need to develop a new specification for the tag.

Porad said Boeing has identified 1,750 individual Dreamliner parts it wants tagged. There are a number of reasons Boeing selected these parts. Some have extremely high dollar values, while others have a limited life and need to be replaced frequently (to ensure they are replaced promptly, alerts can be encoded in the tags' memory). In some cases, the parts require frequent maintenance to avoid failure.

The company is not acting alone, however. Porad said Boeing and its European competitor, Airbus, have worked together to ensure that tags and labels developed for Boeing suppliers will also be accepted by Airbus, should it make a similar tagging requirement. This is important, because 70 percent of Boeing's suppliers also supply Airbus. Thus, if Airbus joins Boeing in requiring this type of tag on parts, Porad said, the volume of tags needed could reach 2 million per year.

Boeing noted that the airlines are largely responsible for the momentum behind the tagging requirement. "Boeing's customers came to Boeing and asked for this," said Remily. The benefits to Boeing's airline customers would come through being able to keep electronic maintenance records on the tags themselves. This would cut down on the airlines' paper records, while enabling mechanics to reference the maintenance history of a particular part more quickly and easily since that data would be displayed on the handheld reader used to identify the part.

For Boeing's suppliers, tagging parts would be an added cost of doing business with the company. Early estimates indicate the tags could cost $15 each, but Meyer said his company, Rockwell Collins, could reap internal benefits from tagging its parts. Unlike retailer mandates, such as those made by Wal-Mart, Target and others, the value of the tags placed on airline parts would extend throughout the life of the part. This means the suppliers' investment in the tags could provide a return when the parts are sent back to the supplier for repair or modification.

"Our maintenance department is very excited about RFID," said Meyer. Today, he explained, it is sometimes difficult for Rockwell Collins to get an accurate and complete maintenance history on the parts returned to the company. Plus, without a complete history, it's impossible for the company to know all variables that might be causing a part to malfunction. "But imagine a part coming in with a bible of the part history [encoded to the tag]. RFID will reduce our maintenance costs," he said.

Once developed, the tags might also suit a number of other manufacturers needing to keep maintenance histories of parts that have high metallic content and are exposed to extreme temperatures, such as those in the automotive industry.

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