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Airbus' Grand Plans for RFID

Think the Airbus A380—the world's largest passenger airplane—is big? Consider the jet maker's company-wide RFID program, which extends from tracking goods in its global supply chain to manufacturing and in-service operations.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Oct 01, 2007—One of the most closely guarded secrets about the Airbus A380—the 525-passenger airplane dubbed "Superjumbo"—is how the jet airplane maker is going to customize the cabin for each airline. Air France, Emirates Airlines, Qantas, Singapore Airlines and others awaiting orders for the double-decker, four-engine giant have each asked Airbus to design the cabin differently, because they have their own ideas about which features—from the configuration of first-class seats to the size of overhead bins and entertainment options—will woo passengers.

Another closely guarded secret has been how Airbus plans to use radio frequency identification technology. While rival Boeing has announced that it wants suppliers to RFID-tag some 2,000 different parts for its upcoming 787 Dreamliner airplane, Airbus officials have been relatively quiet about their plans—that is, until the company invited RFID journal to visit the A380 final assembly plant in Hamburg, Germany, this summer and witness firsthand some of its RFID deployments and pilots.

Airbus is trying to encourage its suppliers and customers to consider the benefits of RFID by demonstrating how it is using the technology to see results in its own business.

"Why has Airbus taken so long to talk?" asks Carlo K. Nizam, head of value-chain visibility and RFID for Airbus. "There are a number of reasons. First, there is a lot of hype with RFID, and we needed to separate the facts from fiction. Second, we have a very unique position of influence between our suppliers and customers—when Airbus does something, it is felt across the entire industry. Third, given that RFID represents such a rare opportunity to enable real business savings for everyone, it was important to take the time to focus on our airline customers, suppliers and industrial partners and listen to their ideas."

The fact is that RFID is helping to ensure that the 800 containers of parts needed to build each cabin get to the right place at the right time. Those parts have to be installed in sequence. If one important piece is missing, it could impact production. The first A380 is to be delivered to Singapore Airlines in October, and Airbus plans to ramp up production next year to reach a rate of four A380s a month by 2010.

Airbus built a huge hangar—it's five stories high and a quarter-mile long to accommodate up to four A380s—in Hamburg just for the installation of the A380 cabins. The size and scope of the parts-tracking operation there is indicative of Airbus' grand vision for using RFID. The company has embarked on an ambitious three-phase program to improve business processes and provide real-time automated visibility across its entire value chain of operations. It's the end result of a two-and-a-half year examination of how RFID could help the pan-European corporate giant streamline processes, cut out paperwork, move to a just-in-time approach to deliveries, optimize inventory levels and ultimately reduce costs. To understand Airbus' approach to RFID, it's important to understand the company's history.
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