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Rolls-Royce Tests RFID's Potential to Drive Its Supply Chain

The U.K. engines manufacturer is exploring ways RFID might be used to improve its internal processes.
By Rhea Wessel
In most cases, the tests revealed that the packaging of aircraft parts did not appear to cause RF interference, which can make it difficult to read the tags. Instead, the most significant factor for getting highly accurate read rates was shown to be tag orientation. Later trials revealed some specific interference issues—for example, when tagging bags of fasteners or other small components. To avoid RF interference with tagged bags of metal screws (metal is known to interfere with RF signals), the bags of screws needed to be placed in double bags, with the components in one end and an RFID tag on the other, to provide tag/metal separation.

Once the RFID equipment testing was completed, Rolls-Royce began a live trial employing ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 tags from Alien Technology for tracking parts between Bristol and Ansty. At that point, the company determined that it wanted to use RFID to track parts flow throughout its Bristol warehouse, provide status reports on the parts' locations in the warehouse and track when the parts left the Bristol warehouse and were received at the MRO facility in Ansty.

From the trial, the company determined that its existing tracking mechanism for the inbound pipeline (based on bar-coding technology and a supply chain system from Exostar) already provides sufficient visibility, and that there would be less incremental benefit from using RFID technology at this stage. The trial ran for eight weeks, and Rolls-Royce reports being able to successfully read tags 99.7 percent of the time during its tests.

In early 2008, the manufacturer plans to implement an RFID pilot to track parts in an extended supply chain between its warehouses in Bristol, Derby and Indianapolis, and its MRO facility at East Kilbride, Scotland. The pilot will most likely employ passive UHF EPC Gen 2 tags. The parts will also be tracked internally, within the Scottish MRO site, between a warehouse and the repair operations areas.

In the future, Rolls-Royce plans to extend the supply chain test to incorporate customers' premises and include the tracking of both engines and piece parts, utilizing a combination of passive and active RFID technologies. Specifically, active tags will be used on high-value engine assets to provide more accurate tracking and location visibility, and to potentially carry engine configuration and maintenance history.

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