Boeing, Fujitsu to Offer Airlines a Holistic RFID Solution

By Claire Swedberg

The system will include all hardware, middleware, software and integration required by airlines or other customers to track aircraft components in five unique use cases.

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Boeing announced a partnership with Fujitsu to develop a full turnkey RFID solution known as the Automated Identification Technology (AIT) Retrofit Package, designed for managing aircraft parts through repair, maintenance and inspection processes. The system, which Boeing will sell to its new and existing customers, such as airline companies, is expected to be made commercially available in 2012, following a year of testing by the two partner companies.

The solution will provide customers with Fujitsu’s EPC Gen 2 RFID tags, designed specifically for aerospace applications, as well as RFID readers from Fujitsu, Motorola or Intermec; middleware; a software solution to manage the data on a company’s own back-end system, or on a server hosted by Boeing; and integration and maintenance services from Fujitsu and Boeing. The aerospace company will determine which software firm it will work with in order to provide the software and middleware portion of the solution by February 2011, says Phil Coop, the program manager of Boeing’s AIT business.


Boeing’s Phil Coop

The solution’s history began in 2005, Coop says, when Boeing announced plans to attach RFID tags to hundreds of parts used to manufacture the new 787 aircraft it was then developing (see Boeing’s Flight Plan for Dreamliner Tags), though the plans were ultimately delayed. “Our focus right now is on completing the flight test program and successfully delivering the 787 to our customers,” he adds. “RFID remains a consideration for Boeing airplanes, and a team within the Boeing Commercial Airplanes group, led by Sudhakar Shett, is currently working with the airplane programs to determine the appropriate platform and future production cut-in target.”

Boeing’s original RFID plans for the 787, however, captured the interest of the firm’s customers—commercial airlines. Although the companies liked the idea of radio frequency identification and its ability to automate the tracking of parts as they are inspected—or removed, repaired and returned to an aircraft—they lacked experience with RFID, Coop says, or the resources to gain that experience. Regarding the technology’s importance, he adds, “the customer was saying to us, ‘We get it, but how would we implement it?'”

At that time, in early 2008, Boeing had already been working with Fujitsu, which had been able to provide the 64-kilobyte ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) Gen 2 RFID tag that Boeing had sought for the 787 tagging project (see Boeing Approves Intelleflex Chip, Weighs Higher-Memory Fujitsu Tag). Therefore, Coop explains, he directly extended his customers’ concerns to Fujitsu, suggesting that a more holistic solution was something end users wanted. Within 24 hours, he says, Fujitsu had responded with a recommendation to develop the partnership with Boeing.

That idea was shelved due to the economic recession, but reopened in February 2010, at which time Boeing established the AIT department and began planning the system offering. “Boeing and Fujitsu have conducted a lot of workshops with aviation companies,” says Toshiya Sato, the general manager of Fujitsu’s Global Solution Business division, “and the benefits of AIT implementation to aircraft maintenance operation were already verified and proved, in terms of cost and time reduction, process improvement, and so on.”

According to Coop, Boeing isolated five priorities among the 33 identified use cases for RFID in the airline industry. Those primary use cases involve the management, maintenance or repair of five different types of equipment, components or tasks: emergency equipment, such as oxygen generators and life jackets; system portables, which require regular maintenance; structural rotables, which are components not related to “systems”; reparables management, such as items removed from an aircraft for repair; and lastly, the structural repair and management of airframe degradation. Customers could purchase an RFID system to address one or more of these use cases, or all five.

Currently, the management of these five equipment categories is typically tracked manually, using pen and paper. Emergency equipment must be checked manually on a regular basis, with the results of those inspections recorded on paper; rotable maintenance is also tracked in this manner. Items removed from a plane for repair can be so difficult to track, Coop notes, that they can leave an aircraft and be gone for more than a year before being repaired, inspected and reinstalled. In one case, he indicates, an airline waited 431 days for a reparable piece to be returned to an aircraft. But with an RFID system—in which data could be stored on a tag and be read by supply chain participants—Coop estimates the same process would have taken approximately 12 days, because the supply chain members, as well as the airline company, would have had better visibility regarding when a part had completed one step in the process, and could quickly reroute that item to the next step.

If an airline customer requests the AIT Retrofit service, Boeing will first send its engineers to that airline’s site to review the customer’s needs, and will then return to install the system. This, Coop says, might include permanently attaching tags to aircraft components, installing reader portals, providing handheld readers, and integrating middleware and software, as necessary, with the end user’s back-end system, as well as providing follow-up maintenance. “It would be a matter of less than a few months to see a fully fitted plane,” he states, with RFID-tagged parts being tracked using interrogators. As a tagged component completes a maintenance and repair procedure, a record of that procedure would be stored both on the tag itself, and in the airline’s back-end system.

“Initially, we’ll use commercially available, off-the-shelf EPC Gen 2 readers that are rugged and suitable for the airline maintenance environment,” Coops says. “In the future, we’ll work with Fujitsu to develop more advanced and specifically tailored hardware.”

Until the system becomes commercially available in 2012, however, Boeing and Fujitsu still have some development work to do. During the development phase, beginning now, the two partners will validate the uses cases, ensuring that the five selected prove to be those of the greatest value. They will then gauge the system’s performance in Boeing’s test laboratory, and test the engineers’ ability to build an RFID infrastructure by installing readers and applying tags to aircraft components as required by a customer. Boeing is also working with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), as well as Japan’s counterpart, the Japan Civil Aviation Authority, to gain approval for a system that relies on data stored on RFID tags as an authoritative information source for inspections or other procedures—for example, using information regarding life jackets’ presence and expiration status on an aircraft, based on RFID tag reads.

After testing the system in-house, Boeing intends to conduct an in-service evaluation and field trials at the sites of potential end users. Once the development stage is completed, Coop says, the partners will be ready to take the system to market.

Thus far, several airlines have expressed an interest in the solution, as have a number of groups in the defense industry. Coop predicts that the solution, once installed, will provide a return on investment to end users within one year.