Delta’s $2 Million Gift to the Auburn RFID Lab

By Mark Roberti

Some companies want to implement RFID on the cheap, while others, such as Delta Air Lines, realize how powerful the technology is and want to get it right.

Last week, we reported that Delta Air Lines and the Jacobson Family Foundation had donated $2 million to Auburn University's RFID Lab so that the lab could research RFID applications in the aviation industry and help ensure that Delta, and the industry, deploy radio frequency identification technologies in ways that deliver the most value (see Auburn RFID Lab Expands to Avionics With Delta Gift). I was struck by this because so many other companies seem to want to implement RFID in a way that I would describe as quick and dirty.

Here's one example: I received a call back in April from a supply chain executive at a midsize company in Virginia. He wanted the name of a local business that could help him deploy an RFID application. I suggested he attend RFID Journal LIVE! 2018, which was being held in a couple of weeks in Florida. I told him he'd be able to meet a bunch of companies that could help him, and he could evaluate them all in one place, choose two or three to submit proposals to and wind up with a better solution as a result. "No," he said. "Just give me the name of a company in my area."

That's just one example. I could cite many more. Some firms take the attitude that they have a few assets that are difficult to track and they just want a simple solution that will solve their particular problem so they can move on to other issues. The problem with that approach is that the system they choose might not work for other things they want to track down the road. That means they will either need to rip it out and start over, or install more than one RFID system to manage everything.

I understand that companies are grappling with a lot of issues at the same time, and that senior executives do not have a lot of free time. But this approach is shortsighted. Installing an RFID solution is not like replacing the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) equipment on your roof or upgrading your laptops.

RFID is a transformation technology. Since 2011, Delta Air Lines has installed more than 240,000 RFID tags on oxygen generators, life vests and cabin emergency equipment on all of its owned and leased aircraft (see Aerospace and Defense Catch Up on RFID). The result: The airline can now check the expiration dates of all oxygen generators aboard a 757 in less than two minutes—instead of the approximately eight man-hours it used to take to do this manually.

But the real benefit, says Rick Lewis, a business analyst for aircraft maintenance at Delta, is the ability to collect data often, without disrupting normal aircraft operations in the process. Delta can perform predictive maintenance, order new oxygen canisters only when it needs them and store them in locations where they will be available to be put on aircraft when existing canisters require replacement. Such visibility into which canisters will expire during the coming weeks, months and years also benefits the suppliers that make the canisters, since they are better able to plan and procure parts and materials.

That is just one application. Delta is using RFID to track passenger luggage with UHF RFID tags attached to it, and is sending updates to customers via a smartphone app. The industry is also moving toward utilizing the technology to track parts maintenance.

Delta's gift is a forward-thinking commitment to a technology that could provide benefits across a wide area of its operations. It wants to get RFID right so it can deliver the most value over the long term. The work the lab does will help ensure that this happens. In my view, this is a much better approach than just installing any system that will solve a problem in the short term.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.