Boeing Leads the Way

By Mark Roberti

The miracle of flight meets the innovation of RFID.

Commercial airplanes have always seemed miraculous to me. It's not just the miracle of getting a 190-ton (172,000-kg) plane in the air. (That's about what a 747 weighs when it's empty.) It's also the miracle of manufacturing a vehicle with millions of parts and having them all work properly virtually all the time. It's the miracle of maintaining these giant machines and keeping them flying regularly.

The job of manufacturing is growing increasingly difficult as planes become ever more technologically advanced and supply chains become more complex. Boeing and Airbus have agreed that radio frequency identification has great potential for tracking airplane parts made all over the world; it can help ensure the right part gets to the right facility at the right time. They've also agreed on standards for using RFID in their supply chains.

But Boeing is going a step further. It is looking to make its planes easier for customers to maintain by putting active (battery-powered) RFID transponders on parts. Some of these transponders would have onboard sensors that would communicate with cockpit and ground maintenance computers. These systems would detect any abnormal rise in the temperature or vibration of a part, indicating it needed to be replaced. Maintenance crews on the ground could be alerted to the issue while the plane was still in the air and have a spare part waiting when a plane landed.

This vision of a self-monitoring airplane might seem like science fiction, but a recently completed 90-day in-flight trial described in our cover story shows it's not far from reality. The prospect of smart parts on planes is exciting for struggling airlines. If they could have parts on hand when they were needed, it would cut costs, reduce delays and keep customers happy. (As a frequent flyer, anything that reduces flight delays is a big deal to me.)

While the construction industry doesn't have a single, large RFID champion yet, it is moving toward greater use of RFID to increase the efficiency of operating schedules. By tracking supplies, tools and even workers, construction companies could save millions of dollars).

Elsewhere in this issue, we look at the differences among various real-time locating systems and provide some insights into which type of system is best for common applications. And we look at how wireless networks of sensors—the most advanced form of RFID—can be used to improve safety and security.

Taken together, these stories offer a look at the world of active RFID technology and how it can be used today and in the future to improve supply-chain efficiencies and monitor parts, assets and people in real time. No wonder more companies are actively exploring the potential of battery-powered tags and sensors to deliver business value.