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Boeing Finds the Right Stuff

Boeing's Terry Alderson explains how his company uses RFID tags to track parts as they move through its facility in Wichita, Kansas. The system reduces costs and gives managers visibility into the parts pipeline.
By Bob Violino
Dec 29, 2003—o imagine a more complex manufacturing environment than building commercial airliners. Not only does each plane have tens of thousands of parts, which must be assembled in a highly orchestrated process; each part also has to be tracked separately to comply with aviation regulations. In a facility the size of a small city, it's not hard to loose track of a key part, which can slow or delay production. At The Boeing Co.'s site in Wichita, Kan., we've found a solution: radio frequency identification.
Tracking every part is a challenge

Boeing Wichita is a sprawling facility that designs, fabricates and assembles fuselage structures, struts, and engine parts for almost all of Boeing's commercial jetliners. Our unit also includes a Military Development & Modification Center, which is modernizing existing military products and creating new versions of commercial products for military applications. The facility has approximately 15,000 employees, many of who need to make sure they have the right tool or right part at the right time.

In June, our Commercial Airplane operating unit went live with a passive UHF system, which allows us to track parts as they are received into the facility and move from shop to shop before reaching the assembly line. The system saves labor and improves visibility into the parts pipeline. We're expanding the system to track certified tools within our Military Modification Center operating unit and eventually mobile assets, such as forklifts and tugs.

About three years ago, my unit—manufacturing research & development for Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Wichita—began looking for a way to track transportation vehicles, material handling equipment and other assets in the facility. Another group in Wichita was looking for a way to track the paperwork that goes with airplane parts as they move through the production process. Both teams hit on RFID and soon began working together.
Author Terry Alderson installing an RFID antenna

We established six leaders for our first RFID implementation, covering project management, business case metrics, manufacturing process, computing, site readiness and hardware and technology. The teams had representatives from across the company, including end-users, frequency management, which controls and monitors all RF devices brought into the facility, and those in charge of worker safety. They would meet weekly and then the leaders would report to the directors above them.

I was the head of the hardware and technology group, which looked at passive and active (battery-powered) RFID systems and at global positioning systems. Our team assembled a list of dozens of vendors. Based on the specifications provided by the RFID companies, we were able to weed out many products that had tag orientation sensitivity or didn't provide the read range needed to track forklifts and parts that could be the size of a bus. After narrowing the field, we asked the remaining vendors for references and looked at their technology being used in applications at companies in other industries. Then, the team narrowed the field to a half a dozen top contenders.

Initially, we ran six pilots, three with passive technology and three with active tags. We installed the equipment and tested the technologies with assistance from other support groups and the vendors who supplied the RFID tags and readers.
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