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Will RFID Take Off in Aerospace?

New standards for formatting data stored on tags, as well as tagging requirements from Airbus, could give the technology a lift.
By Mark Roberti
Aug 01, 2009—In June 2009, the Air Transport Association (ATA), a U.S. airline association charged with establishing e-business standards for the global airline industry, published a set of standards that covers the data to be included on automatic data-capture devices, including radio frequency identification tags, as well as the structure of that information. The move paves the way for aircraft makers, airlines, maintenance companies and parts suppliers to track parts and parts histories with RFID. So does this mean RFID is now ready for takeoff in the aerospace sector?

The aerospace industry is ready to embrace RFID, but adoption will likely be steady, rather than swift. Airbus has told its suppliers that they will need to put RFID tags on some parts for its A350 extra-wide-body aircraft, which is under development. The number of parts involved will initially be 2,000 to 5,000, and tagging will begin in 2011 for the plane, which is scheduled to go into service in 2013. Airbus is still refining the precise requirements, and the company intends to work with its suppliers over the next two years to help them meet those requirements.

Boeing had been planning to ask its suppliers—about 80 percent of which overlap with Airbus' supplier base—to tag parts. Ken Porad, associate technical fellow at Boeing, says the recent delay in production of the 787 Dreamliner—a new high-capacity, low-emissions passenger plane—due to a minor flaw discovered in the aircraft design caused the leadership team overseeing production of the aircraft to postpone plans to tag parts. Porad says that before the end of the year, his group will recommend specific parts to be tagged based on use cases the group has developed. "We have more than 65 full-time people working on 52 different RFID projects within Boeing," he says. "We remain totally committed to using the technology, but parts tagging has been delayed."

Tracking parts could benefit aircraft manufacturers by making it easier to find parts in inventory and needed at the assembly line. It could benefit parts manufacturers (and the flying public) by reducing counterfeiting of parts. And tracking parts as well as parts histories could benefit the airlines by making it easier for them to maintain aircraft and manage parts inventories. But tracking parts and parts histories with RFID is a major change in the way the industry operates, and other key issues need to be addressed before RFID becomes the most common way to track parts.

First, there is still more work to be done to create standards for capturing and sharing data. ATA has approved a data structure regarding what information should be stored on tags used on parts. High-memory tags (which will hold 64 kilobits of data) will include information on each part's "birth record"—that is, a code indicating the company that made it, as well as the part's date of manufacture, country of origin, part number and serial number. These tags will also have "current data" about the items to which they are attached. If a part has been refurbished or had new software added, for example, that information would be stored on the tag. In addition, the tag will have an open area of memory for users to add whatever information they like, such as notes by a mechanic who serviced the part. Low-memory tags would be encoded with just the birth record and possibly limited current information.
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