Profits in Motion

By Elizabeth Wasserman

Through its three-stage RFID implementation, Airbus is gaining large-scale visibility into its business and production processes—and realizing jumbo savings.


ournal Award Winner: Best RFID Implementation

June 1, 2008—Airbus tends to do everything on a large scale. The company manufactures the world’s biggest passenger airplane: the 525-passenger A380, dubbed the “Superjumbo.” Its supply chain involves hundreds of suppliers of airplane parts, ranging from tires and brakes to seats and carpeting—and Airbus’ value chain extends to its numerous airline and government customers, and regional maintenance and repair operations. Airbus itself, headquartered in Toulouse, France, operates 16 plants throughout Europe that make various components or sections of planes, which are transported to final assembly locations.

So it’s no surprise that instead of adopting radio frequency identification technology in a piecemeal fashion, the aerospace giant took a “systematic and holistic” approach. “For the past four years, the entire Airbus team has performed the hard work to get ready to deploy RFID on an industrial scale,” says Carlo K. Nizam, head of value-chain visibility and RFID for Airbus. “We set our sights on wanting to ‘set the standard’ and be a model for large-company global execution of an RFID-inspired visibility program.”

To accomplish these goals, Airbus created a 10-member RFID steering committee, comprising vice presidents from across Airbus’ businesses, and undertook an internal examination of its business processes. It then developed a three-phase plan to use RFID to increase accuracy, control and efficiency through real-time automated visibility across the company’s value chain of operations.

With the additional help of an operational-level team, Airbus tested RFID in numerous applications involved in the manufacture of its fleet of airplanes, evaluated those tests, rolled out deployments and developed new pilots. The company’s current RFID implementations and pilots extend from tracking goods across its global supply chain to its manufacturing and assembly processes and in-service operations. These applications use a mix of active and passive RFID technologies, and fixed and mobile RFID interrogators for tag readings.

Airbus has been surpassing its goals, which include cutting costs, reducing inventory and improving performance of business operations. “The results are indicative of the approach that Airbus has taken,” Nizam says. “They have been beyond our expectations.” While Nizam declines to put a dollar or euro estimate on the return on investment from Airbus’ RFID program, citing “competitive reasons,” he does estimate the savings as “in the order of millions” of euros.

Airbus revealed its closely guarded RFID strategy to RFID Journal in September 2007 (see Airbus’ Grand Plans for RFID). Since publication of the article “Airbus’ Grand Plans for RFID,” the company has made steady progress on its RFID program—turning some of the pilot projects disclosed last year into full implementations, and considering phasing in adoption of other applications throughout its international facilities. This should help prepare Airbus for the future, as production of the A380 ramps up to as many as four planes per month by 2010.

The first phase, which is in deployment, involves supply-chain tracking, warehouse logistics and distribution. The second phase, a mix of pilot and deployed solutions, focuses on global transportation as well as manufacturing and assembly. The third phase, for which pilots are now being developed and are expected to begin this year, looks at in-service operations of airliners and maintenance and repair operations.

Already, some of Airbus’ investments in RFID have paid off handsomely, in terms of increasing production-line efficiency, replacing paper-based processes with automated ones and reducing the physical handling of supplies by workers. After Airbus automated container tracking on the A380 assembly line in Hamburg by using RFID to ensure that the right parts were delivered to the correct assembly stations at the proper time, the company found that the overall number of containers needed dropped by 8 percent when compared with the manual tracking process.

RFID should help Airbus ramp up production for the 525-passenger A380 airplane.

In addition, Nizam says, the same process for tracking roll cages on the assembly line for other planes helped cut down on the time workers spent searching for parts by two hours per aircraft. Airbus is planning similar deployments for facilities in France and the United Kingdom.

Airbus also decided to implement an RFID pilot that sought to more accurately track the shipment and delivery of large aircraft sections, such as fuselages, wings and tail sections. These sections need to be transported by a special airplane—called the Beluga, because it looks like a whale—from Airbus manufacturing facilities throughout Europe to the company’s final assembly lines. The large parts used to be tracked by paper, e-mail and phone calls, and often workers would have to visit the vast hangars and storage areas to determine which parts had been shipped.

Last year, at its Hamburg facility, Airbus placed passive RFID tags on some of the metal frames, or “jigs,” that hold these airplane sections, and fitted RFID interrogators on the aircraft cargo loaders that move the jigs on and off the Beluga. When the jigs are loaded onto or unloaded from the Beluga, the tags are read and the data is transmitted wirelessly across a mobile network to the company’s central software system.

The pilot proved so successful that Airbus has decided to implement the new process on all 80 jigs in Hamburg, Nizam says, and to extend implementation to all of the company’s 13 Beluga stations throughout Europe. The pilot also provided Airbus with an understanding of the benefits of gaining visibility into the transport of all large airplane sections—not only by air, but potentially by land and sea as well.

Airbus’ experiences with RFID weren’t all a smooth ride. The company had to overcome significant challenges in tagging metal and carbon-fiber aircraft parts, tools, jigs, containers and roll cages. In addition, RFID-tagged shipping labels were sometimes used on boxes containing metallic and carbon parts. “There was no room for trial-and-error methods destined for failure,” Nizam says. Airbus worked with its many technology partners—including AeroScout, Feig, Intermec, Motorola and ODIN—to undertake scientific testing and analysis to overcome these obstacles.

Gearing Up for New Pilots

Airbus has queued up a series of processes that it plans to test with RFID this year. The company wants to look at “in-service” processes, including line-side maintenance, repair shop processes and the tracking of equipment, such as oxygen canisters or life jackets, that have expiration dates and require regular checks by maintenance crews. Many of these pilots will be conducted with customer airlines and suppliers, although Nizam declines to name which ones will be participating.

The RFID pilot to track large aircraft sections on a special airplane—called the Beluga, becuase it looks like a whale—proved so successful that Airbus has decided to implement the process at the company’s 13 Beluga stations throughout Europe.

The tracking of payload and cargo-related processes for airlines has been identified as another future area for RFID testing. “These may be freight or passenger airlines,” Nizam says. “They do a lot of tracking and tracing when baggage leaves terminals or the containers are taken from terminals. We’re looking to see whether there is significant business value in gaining visibility into when something is loaded onto the aircraft or unloaded from the aircraft, because today you need manual intervention.”

Airbus views its RFID projects as “real-life testaments” that the technology can add value and save money for the entire aerospace industry sector. Instead of resorting to RFID mandates to suppliers, Airbus believes it’s better to first illustrate RFID’s impact on its own business process efficiencies and cost savings.

By undertaking a holistic approach to the development of its RFID program, the jet maker is hoping to help pave the way for suppliers, customers and other stakeholders to adopt RFID in their enterprises. “If Airbus can get the kind of successful results across its umbrella of countries, with multiple partners and extensive stakeholders,” Nizam says, “we should be an inspiration for any large-scale global company looking to gain value from RFID.”