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RFID Takes Off in the Aerospace Industry

As airplane manufacturers and government take the lead, airlines, suppliers and airports look at the benefits of tracking parts, tools, luggage carts and even people to improve safety and reduce costs, inefficiencies and flight delays.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Apr 01, 2007—Japan Airlines (JAL) officials realized there was a return on investment to be gained from using radio frequency identification to streamline maintenance operations. During a three-day demonstration last December in Tokyo, RFID tags were used to track the expiration dates on oxygen generators onboard a 777 commercial airliner. The demo showed that the inspection process that now requires two JAL mechanics to spend six and a half hours each unscrewing and removing ceiling panels in an airplane and visually checking generator dates could be cut to eight and a half minutes for one mechanic with a handheld RFID interrogator.

The RFID demonstration was orchestrated by Boeing for JAL and representatives from other airlines. Oxygen generators, which provide breathable air to passengers in the event an airplane cabin loses pressure, need to be monitored regularly; each has an expiration date, and airlines risk fines and violations if generators exceed those dates. The inspection process is repeated on each JAL airplane every 19 months. But because the task is so labor intensive, if the airplane is already undergoing heavy maintenance, oxygen generators are sometimes replaced early—with 20 percent of their life still remaining. RFID could change that. Handheld interrogators could be used at any airport at any time to inspect the generators, which would extend their life and allow JAL to lower inventory by some 80 percent, Boeing officials estimated.

Airlines, suppliers and airports can improve safety and reduce costs, inefficiencies and flight delays by implementing RFID.

JAL officials were so impressed that they drew up plans to conduct an RFID pilot using oxygen generators, starting perhaps as soon as this summer. They also foresee other uses for RFID, such as ensuring enough life jackets are on overseas flights. "I think that's one small step for Boeing and JAL," says Kenichi Hayashi, a JAL engineering official who participated in the demonstration, "but I hope it will be one giant leap for both the aircraft and RFID industries someday."

The potential to dramatically cut down on labor, inventory and other costs associated with maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) is one of the main reasons aerospace companies are testing and/or deploying RFID. Commercial airplanes have a quarter-century lifespan, and that means MRO operations can be a major expense, not to mention a logistical nightmare to coordinate. RFID tagging of parts is seen as a way to reduce flight delays and cancellations by ensuring the right parts are in the right location when needed. At the same time, RFID could help aerospace companies comply with an assortment of safety regulations that require data be kept to document repair histories of parts—a process now done largely on paper.

The world's two dominant commercial airplane manufacturers—Boeing and Airbus—are working on standards to use RFID to mark individual parts and keep maintenance records on the RFID tags. But that's just one RFID initiative. At virtually every level in the aerospace industry's supply chain—which includes airplane manufacturers, suppliers, airlines, airports and government agencies—stakeholders are deploying or testing RFID to help eliminate waste, cut costs, gain visibility through the sharing of information and improve safety. While suppliers are working with airplane manufacturers and the U.S. Department of Defense, which has its own RFID requirements, they're also using RFID internally to track assets and improve processes. At the same time, airports, airlines and airport management companies are looking to RFID to help them address growing consumer complaints about delayed flights and lost baggage (see sidebar on page 36).

But some suppliers have been hesitant to embrace RFID for parts marking, fearing that it will cost—rather than save—them money. The aerospace industry is also facing financial pressures, which has impacted investment in RFID due to infrastructure costs. In addition, some of these RFID applications require tags that have more memory and/or are more durable than those being used to tag cases and pallets in the retail industry, and aerospace companies are waiting for vendors to produce them in the quantities they need.

Still, RFID spending in the U.S. aerospace market is forecast to grow from $14.5 million in 2005 to $62 million in 2012, according to a recent Frost & Sullivan study. The company also looked at the European market and forecast that spending on aerospace-related RFID there would rise from $2.9 million in 2005 to $12.1 million by 2012.
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