Learning From Airbus

Health-care providers and companies in other industries can learn from the holistic approach the aircraft manufacturer is taking.
Published: October 18, 2010

Last week, we held our sixth RFID in Health Care conference, in Philadelphia, Pa. It was a great event, attended by dozens of hospitals, and the more than 100 attendees were fully engaged and asking questions. At the end of the conference, I was asked, “Is there anything health-care providers can learn from companies in other industries that are deploying RFID?”

Great question. I said yes, health-care companies can learn from Airbus. In fact, all businesses can learn from Airbus, regardless of the industry they are in. Let me explain why.

Airbus has taken a holistic view of radio frequency identification. The company sees the technology as a tool that provides the visibility required to measure manufacturing, supply chain and in-flight operations. The firm is deploying both a passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) system and an active ultra-wideband (UWB) system to provide visibility into the locations of a wide range of objects, such as containers, parts, tools, vehicles and more.

The goal, according to Carlo K. Nizam, Airbus’ head of value-chain visibility, is to create “fly-by-wire” operations. Airplanes were once operated by levers and pulleys. Airbus pioneered the concept of controlling rudders and ailerons with electrical impulses, which was dubbed “fly by wire.” Nizam uses the same analogy for running manufacturing, supply chain and other operations. RFID will provide visibility to allow the “pilots” of these systems to know exactly what’s happening within Airbus’ operations, and to then respond accordingly.

Paul-Antoine Calandreau, Airbus’ flyable RFID project leader, will speak at RFID Journal LIVE! Europe 2010, being held on Nov. 2-4, in Darmstadt, Germany. There, he will describe the next stage of the airplane manufacturer’s ambitious plans. But hospitals and other companies can learn what Airbus has already done. Many facilities seek to use, or are already using, real-time location systems (RTLS) simply to track assets. However, the technology can be used as infrastructure to do more.
Active RFID systems could, for instance, be tied into a hospital’s equipment-maintenance systems so that each time a piece of equipment requires maintenance, that information is displayed, along with the asset’s precise location. This saves employees time, and also ensures that equipment is always properly maintained. Systems can also be set up to issue an alert when an item in need of maintenance is moved to a patient’s room, rather than to the hospital’s facilities-maintenance area.

The same solution could be utilized to monitor the locations of doctors and nurses, and to track who they have been in contact with, in the event of an outbreak of an infectious disease. Hospitals in Singapore and Taiwan, for instance, used active RFID systems in this manner a few years ago, during an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). In short, hospitals should be looking at active RFID as a way to provide visibility into everything that is happening within their facilities, with regard to medium- and large-size assets and equipment, as well as individuals.

A passive RFID system will also be needed in hospitals, because there are many items that are too small to track using active technology. These include surgical sponges, scalpels, trays, hospital gowns, tissue samples, pharmaceuticals and more.

Passive systems currently represent a challenge for hospitals, because many items (such as scalpels and clamps) are composed of metal and, thus, can not be easily tagged. But vendors are working on very small tags that can be embedded in surgical instruments, and that can survive multiple sterilizations in an autoclave.

Eventually, RFID will be as critical to all companies as IT systems are today. IT systems enable businesses to monitor and manage the activities of people sitting at computers. RFID will provide the ability to see, monitor and manage the personnel, tools, inventory, assets, equipment, vehicles and everything else within a firm’s operations that moves and can not presently be managed. That will require both passive and active systems—and it will necessitate the kind of vision that Airbus has shown.

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 or the Editor’s Note archive.