Northrop Grumman Boosts Efficiency, Cuts Losses with RFID

Published: April 9, 2024

Rolled out last year with FactorySense RFID, the project brings visibility to equipment used for its aerospace projects

Aerospace manufacturing company Northrop Grumman has launched an RFID solution at its Space Park facility with the help of technology company FactorySense RFID.

The deployment, which started in 2022 began its roll-out in 2023, delivers visibility and automated data for management of assets and tools, according to company officials. By creating an RFID management system and developing a roadmap for deployment across its facilities, the company aims to reduce asset loss, improve efficiency, and help ensure large scale aerospace projects are completed within critical timelines.

Space Park, in Redondo Beach, CA, is an aerospace manufacturing facility consisting of 46 buildings with over 1.5 million square feet of manufacturing, warehousing, labs, and engineering space. The complex is the site of projects dating from the 1960s Apollo program up to the James Webb Space Telescope.

At this site, the manufacturer coordinates a large volume of materials and tools, overseeing production cycles and synchronizing the flow of materials so that its mission critical space products are completed within the timelines of their clients. This is a challenge, not only because of the size of the site but also due to the wide variety of environmental conditions that typically hinder RFID as well as complex security compliance requirements that often change from one location in the site to another.

Journey From Exploring RFID to a Deployment Roadmap

The company initially explored RFID technology as part of an internal digital transformation technology pilot program. Site engineers evaluated the functionality of RFID technology, its impact on site operations, and the ability to weave real time tracking data into other digital technologies in use at the site.

After initial evaluations determined the technology could provide significant benefits, the company set about to select a partner with extensive defense and aerospace experience that could engage deeply with all stakeholders and help implement the technology in a professional, scalable, and efficient manner.

After FactorySense was selected, work began in 2022 with extensive consultations and a detailed site assessment. The first challenge was to align the goals of a large number of stakeholders with the complicated security requirements in place as well as the abilities and limits of RFID technology within each of the site’s highly varied environments, said Neal Lober, FactorySense’s founder.

The goals of Northrop Grumman were multifold—they wanted to prevent asset loss by ensuring all tools and materials were accounted for and met compliance requirements, weave RFID data into other systems used at the site, and better manage asset maintenance and utilization.

RFID in a Box Delivers Security

Northrop Grumman has unique requirements around security and worked with FactorySense to develop a highly secure “RFID in a Box” solution. This approach integrates secure, redundant, and highly available cloud-based command and control systems with edge processing to provide flexibility and meet security demands. The solution allows the deployment model to be customized at different locations within the site, enabling each location to leverage RFID technology locally, within its own unique constraints.

The goal was for a solution that can expand with time and be adapted to changing requirements, and the solution delivered aims to be modular, scalable, and capable of evolving alongside the dynamic landscape of industrial manufacturing.

The RFID solution developed for Space Park includes Hub Gateway Devices, fixed UHF RFID readers, handheld RFID readers, and a variety of RFID tags. Deployment began at pilot locations in 2023 and rollout is anticipated to be a multi-year effort.

How it Works

Fixed RFID readers were installed in a variety of areas to offer real-time, proximity sensing of tagged assets and monitor their movements in sensitive environments, thereby enhancing security and operational transparency.

Additionally, RFID portal readers capture tag reads as assets enter and exit from specific areas, providing a view into what is moving into and out of specific zones. Readers are deployed for dock door scanning as well as “curtain scanning” in hallways to detect the movement of materials through critical choke points.

Tags Selected for Challenging and Varied Environment

Working with Factory Sense, Northrop Grumman selected a number of RFID tags that could be used in a wide variety of environments and conditions —from sterile cleanrooms to busy warehousing environments, and from small delicate instruments to fixtures the size of a city bus. Security, durability, and read range were all considered in making these selections.

With this wide variety of requirements, the tags in use include RFID labels smaller than a pinky nail to larger, more rugged tags used for pallets, crates, and crated assets. The deployment roadmap allows for the use of “hard” tags of various sizes as well as tags that can be printed onsite.

During the initial rollout, an onsite tagging team used a ‘Tag-and-Go’ system in which pre-encoded tags could be immediately applied and linked to the asset or inventory item, removing the need for traditional printing and ‘commissioning’ processes. The unique ID encoded on each tag is linked to the identity of the asset it is attached to, so subsequent movements can be traced at the serial or lot-level to each specific asset.

Northrop Grumman was honored at RFID Journal LIVE’s Award ceremony in the category of Excellence in Manufacturing Transformation: Northrop Grumman Space Park’s Innovations in IoT and RFID Implementation

As tagged items move around the facility, the tag reads provide visual representations for each tag on a Visual Floor Plan in the software. In that way, users can view the location of goods moving around the facility.

The RFID tag read information is available in real time through the Asset Tracking function, as well as a detailed movement history through Asset History Trails. The solution offers creation of geofences to generate alerts when sensitive assets enter prohibited areas or exit designated containment zones.

The software was customized to enable centralized access control and role-based access privileges for users, Lober said. As part of the deployment roadmap, the aerospace company can view the active usage versus idle status of its assets and thereby make more informed supply chain decisions, as well as saving excess cost related to over-ordering of redundant inventory.

Worker Satisfaction and Reduced Loss

By prioritizing improved efficiency and data accuracy, Northrop Grumman also aims to make Space Park a better place for its employees to work. Since the deployment began, the company reported, it has begun to see early indications that RFID will reduce the need for time-consuming manual searches for assets and allow them to focus on their work responsibilities.

“With RFID technology, employees are able to independently manage and locate assets with greater autonomy, increasing their sense of ownership and responsibility within their roles,” said Lober. “The attention to employee feedback throughout the entire process has resulted in a successful integration of technology that empowers staff.”

The increased adoption of RFID technology will also drive a decrease in the frequency of lost assets. As the deployment expands, the company will see fewer asset losses, cut cost, and raise efficiency.

“Significant savings are possible as the project is deployed across the Space Park campus, with further opportunities to drive efficiency across other complex sites”, said Lober.

Labor Savings

One of the goals of the RFID implementation is to reduce labor hours spent on “go-finds”—when an asset is lost or misplaced, and staff must divert their time from value-added work to searching for the lost asset. This time won back from reducing go-finds will result in faster production, ensuring timelines are met. Time is critical in any industry, but especially so when making complex products that are required on highly orchestrated delivery dates.

Northrop Grumman is seeking to gain customer service improvements by weaving RFID data into other systems and technologies used on site. RFID data, along with other digital threads, weave together to help the company gain a comprehensive view and enable integrated management over all aspects of production.

“It’s an industry making unique, complicated, and incredibly special equipment – often only one at a time – and the ability to do so at a rapid pace is the greatest test,” Lober said.

In the long term, the system allows for expansion across many areas of the campus, as well as across other sites within the organization that have utilized the platform.

“Working with Northrop Grumman Space Park has been an incredible collaboration and blending of high caliber talent, and the technologies and approaches utilized have formed a deployment roadmap as unique as the site itself,” said Lober.

Key Takeaways:

  • Northrop Grumman deployed an RFID solution to track supplies and equipment used on its projects at Space Park, the site where the Apollo program and James Webb Space Telescope were developed.
  • The system improves efficiency, boosts worker satisfaction and reduces the loss of assets.