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Nordam Casts a New Mold With RFID

The aircraft parts manufacturer uses RFID to track and monitor its precision molds.
By John Edwards
Aug 06, 2007—When it comes to useful, cutting-edge technologies such as radio frequency identification, the Nordam Group, located in Tulsa, Okla., isn't afraid of breaking the mold—even as it uses real-life production molds to manufacture critical aircraft components.

Nordam's Interiors and Structures Division supplies complete aircraft interiors, as well as interior components, to the general aviation, business aviation, commercial and military markets. Some of the firm's customers supply their own drawings and specifications for fabrication, but many rely on Nordam to provide the design, engineering and technical expertise required to build interiors for a wide range of aircraft. Nordam's clients include commercial aircraft OEMs, general aviation OEMs, general aviation completion centers and airlines. The company's specialties include composite flat-panel production, plastic fabrication, cabinet fabrication and integrated interior solutions.

Nordham is using an RFID-enabled warehouse-management system to track and monitor its precision molds.

At Nordam, no technology is more useful these days than RFID. The company has attached passive UHF tags, based on the ISO 18000-6B standard, to more than 400 individual molds used to produce interior aircraft components. RFID helps improve the visibility and capacity of the molding process by tracking each mold's location and recording how many times every mold is utilized. "It's a way of bringing efficiency to what was a very inefficient system," says Mike Metcalf, the division's program manager. "The system basically operated in the same way it had for the last 20 years, and it was time for a change."

Forging an Idea
The concept of employing RFID to track and monitor molds grew out of a joint Six Sigma project between Nordam and 3M, its technologies supplier and advisor. As the two companies analyzed the workflow surrounding Nordam's molds, they began examining how RFID could enhance a largely human-dependent system's efficiency and productivity. "Nordam felt there were ways they could get some things improved through the technology solutions we could deliver," says Bill Weber, customer solutions manager with 3M's Track and Trace Solutions Division, based in Eden Prairie, Minn.Along with Metcalf, Weber served as the project's co-manager.

At first glance, the partners suspected the existing system was wasting lots of time. "We realized we were very dependent on individuals," Metcalf says. Six Sigma time studies confirmed their suspicion by discovering that at the start of each shift, workers took five to 30 minutes just to find the molds they needed. "We would waste many hours every day just getting started," Metcalf says.

To support seamless tracking, Nordam has deployed RFID interrogators at strategic locations throughout its facility, including the portals where molds travel from one process to another.

With no organized tracking method, Nordam relied on workers' memory and visual perception to locate and retrieve specific molds. "The individual had to know what the mold looked like," Metcalf says. "Otherwise, you would just search around until you found that small little part number stenciled somewhere on the mold." The practice lacked sophistication and was highly inefficient. "In any manufacturing operation," Weber says, "inefficiency has a cost."

In addition to improving system efficiency, Nordam also wanted to be able to track and monitor individual molds as they moved throughout the production process. Most of all, the company wanted to make sure its molds weren't being overused, which could affect the quality of the precision aircraft components being manufactured. To boost both its efficiency and quality, Nordam and 3M engineers devised an RFID-based system that could track individual molds through the production process, then inventory the units for easy access by production workers.

Planning began in January 2005, with Nordam and 3M executives and managers huddled together to determine the system's scope and capabilities. According to Metcalf, Nordam selected 3M as the project's partner based on the close relationship the companies have maintained on many technology projects over the years. "But mostly, it started as an idea," Metcalf says. "Would RFID have a place in aircraft manufacturing?"

After several months of work, 3M's engineers developed a system using custom-produced tags to meet Nordam's unique manufacturing needs. The ruggedized tags, modified and supplied by 3M's Aerospace and Aircraft Maintenance Division, are based on Escort Memory System's UHF525HT devices. HighJump Software, another 3M company, provided the mold-tracking software as part of its warehouse-management product. For interrogators, the partners turned to SAMSys (since acquired by Sirit) and its MP9320 2.0 products. The system utilizes circularly polarized antennas made by CushCraft. "We ended up writing our own edgeware," Weber says. The entire system was completed and fully implemented in August 2006.
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