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Lufthansa Expands RFID Use

The airline's various divisions are using Mojix RFID hardware to track aircraft-part maintenance and hazardous cargo, while testing the use of handheld readers and its own tags to track safety devices on planes.
By Claire Swedberg
Apr 28, 2010Lufthansa Technik (LHT), the maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO) arm of Lufthansa, is taking the next step in its implementation of radio frequency identification to track paperwork attached to aircraft parts as they pass through the repair process, by installing Mojix RFID hardware at the entrance to its repair facility.

At the same time, Lufthansa Cargo, the company's cargo-transporting branch, is employing RFID to track hazardous or volatile materials as they are placed on pallets and sent to an aircraft for loading. Lufthansa Technik is also testing the use of RFID to track items that can expire—such as life safety vests—on Lufthansa aircraft. Furthering the technology's use throughout the company, LHT and its Lufthansa Technik Logistik (LTL) division developed their own RFID tags to attach to aircraft parts as they move through the repair process, and to be used with safety devices to track expiration dates, thereby saving labor previously spent examining devices on aircraft.

Tom Burian, Lufthansa Technik Logistik's RFID project manager
With regard to tracking parts for maintenance and repair, Lufthansa Technik began attaching RFID labels to part-identification paperwork in December 2007 (see Lufthansa Technik Uses RFID to Expedite Aircraft Repair). When items need to be repaired or maintained, they are first sent to one of several transition points—LTL warehouses in such German cities as Hamburg, Frankfurt, Berlin and Munich—prior to the MRO-related work. After the item is repaired, paperwork is printed to accompany that part back to the LTL warehouse, and then to the plane. This paperwork includes such details as the type of part, its owner and any repair requirements. Prior to using an RFID system, such documents were read manually, and data was inputted into the system as parts were sent for repair, as well as when they returned—which was a labor-intensive process.

Beginning in 2007, an EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) passive RFID label was attached to the paperwork, either by a mechanic at an LHT repair facility, or by the LHT staff before the part and its paperwork were shipped to an external repair shop. The label was encoded with a unique ID number linked in LTL's back-end system to data regarding the part and its repair schedule. The tags were then read on desktop RFID interrogators prior to the part being repaired, and again after it was returned to the central MRO facility.

That solution was a first step, however, for a process that the company hoped to further automate, says Tom Burian, Lufthansa Technik Logistik's RFID project manager. In February 2009, LHT began installing a Mojix EPC Gen 2 real-time locating system (RTLS)—which is slated to go live in May—to read those same tags on aircraft parts' paperwork as they are transported to and from maintenance and repair in Hamburg, explains Carsten Sowa, LTL's RFID program manager.

The Mojix STAR system includes eight eNodes deployed in a star pattern, to provide a full coverage of a 20-meter-long (66-foot-long) tunnel traveling between the logistics warehouse and the maintenance facility's handling area, where parts are unpacked, checked and then forwarded to the repair shop. The eNodes transmit a UHF RF signal that activates the passive tags, which respond by transmitting their ID numbers to a single STAR reader, says Roelof Koopmans, Mojix's European managing director. This will provide Lufthansa with an automated record as to when each part enters and leaves the handling area. Once the repair or maintenance task is completed, the item, along with its paperwork, is carried back through the handling area and tunnel, either by hand or by trolley. At this point, the e-Nodes will again excite the paperwork's tag, causing it to transmit its ID number to the STAR reader. That tag read, along with a time stamp, will then be transmitted to the back-end system, in order to identify when the item was returned from maintenance to the company's logistics warehouse.

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