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RFID Finally Cleared for Takeoff

Adoption of industry standards and development of high-memory RFID tags mean airplane-parts tracking—among suppliers, manufacturers, airlines and maintenance companies—is poised for flight. Next on the tarmac: benefits for all stakeholders.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
May 03, 2010—For the past six years, the world's two dominant commercial airplane manufacturers—the U.S.-based Boeing and Airbus, headquartered in France—have been on a mission to promote the adoption of industry standards for marking individual parts, keeping maintenance records on RFID tags and sharing related data. Beginning in 2004, the two companies held industry forums in North America, Europe and Asia, inviting the world's airlines, parts suppliers, regulatory agencies, and third-party maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) providers.

The goal was to prove that RFID could provide major benefits throughout the aerospace industry. Manufacturers would get visibility into production demands and reduce parts inventory. Suppliers could improve manufacturing efficiencies and verify the authenticity of their parts to fight counterfeiting. Airlines and maintenance companies could make MRO operations, largely paper-based, more efficient so spare parts could be located more quickly, reducing flight delays and cancellations, and potentially saving hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Photo: iStockphoto

At times, it seemed more like "mission impossible." In 2005, Boeing announced it would ask suppliers to RFID-tag thousands of parts used to make its 787 Dreamliner passenger planes. But technology providers were challenged by Boeing's request to develop and produce a high-memory tag with a 64-kilobyte chip that could hold original data and serial numbers for parts, maintenance records and potentially even photos and repair manuals.

Airbus, meanwhile, took a different approach. The company developed a three-phase plan to use RFID companywide to increase the accuracy, control and efficiency of processes through real-time automated visibility—and parts marking fell into phase three. The approach has paid off, and today many cite Airbus as a prime example of how organizations should deploy the technology.

As part of phase one, which includes supply-chain tracking, warehouse logistics and distribution, Airbus started RFID-tagging containers of parts needed to build the cabins in its A380 passenger planes, to ensure the right parts were delivered to the correct assembly stations at the proper time. phase two, which covers global transportation, manufacturing and assembly processes, included tracking jigs—frames that hold large airplane sections—transported via cargo planes between the company's manufacturing and assembly facilities to improve production schedules.
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