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RFID Takes Wing in Aviation

Airbus and Boeing are turning to RFID to give their supply chains and manufacturing operations a lift. Tagging of parts could reduce counterfeiting and provide other supplier benefits.
By Bob Violino
Oct 01, 2004—The challenge: Track some 6 million parts made in as many as 33 different countries, and ensure that each one gets to the assembly line at the moment it’s needed or risk slowing down production of a $20 million wide-body jet. That’s what Airbus and The Boeing Co. are faced with every day. And federal aviation regulations require that each part and its history be tracked individually. It’s such a monumental task that the two archrivals have joined forces to automate the process by deploying RFID in their supply chain.

Airbus and Boeing, which together own the market for large commercial jets, have been holding industry forums around the world to drum up support from customers, parts suppliers and regulatory agencies for the use of RFID. Unlike Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense, Airbus and Boeing don’t plan to issue an RFID mandate. “We’re not requiring suppliers to put tags on parts,” says Kenneth D. Porad, program manager for Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ automated identification program. “We’re providing a road map to get there and taking a systematic approach to working together with suppliers.”

This year, Airbus and Boeing held forums with both suppliers and airline customers in Atlanta, Hong Kong and Munich, Germany. The seminars covered the technology’s potential benefits, as well as challenges. “We want to avoid the hype cycle,” says Porad. “There are big promises with RFID technology, but there has to be a business case.”

The business case has yet to be proved, but Airbus and Boeing believe RFID could dramatically reduce costs throughout the industry. The two airplane manufacturers expect to achieve internal efficiency in their facilities as they track parts and work in process. Airbus and Boeing should also be able to reduce the cost of receiving goods and including a record of those goods in databases of inventory, while reducing errors and improving inventory accuracy.

RFID should also enable the airplane manufacturers and their suppliers to reduce inventory across the supply chain, since RFID would provide better visibility of parts from the time they are produced until they are put on a plane. And RFID should allow everyone in the supply chain, including the airlines that buy planes, to authenticate parts that have been certified by regulatory authorities and thus reduce the possibility that counterfeit parts are introduced into the supply chain.

After the planes go into service, the technology could dramatically improve the way they are repaired. Each day, Boeing sends 4,650 shipments of spare parts to its airline customers worldwide. The airlines have an estimated $45 billion of unused spare parts on their shelves. RFID should provide the visibility that enables airlines to trim these inventories while ensuring parts are always where they need to be to keep the planes flying. It should also help repair shops reduce the labor needed to track maintenance cycles (some parts must be reconditioned or discarded after a certain number of miles flown) and repair histories.
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