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Portuguese Airline TAPs Into RFID

The national airline uses radio frequency identification to track engine-overhaul components and tools.
By John Edwards
Jul 23, 2012TAP, Portugal's national airline, has a long history of employing advanced technology to maintain and manage its international fleet. This dedication to excellence has paid off over the years, by providing enhanced reliability, service and passenger comfort. TAP was founded in 1945 as Transportes Aéreos Portugueses, and its route network currently extends to 80 destinations across 36 countries. The airline operates almost 2,000 weekly flights, with a fleet of 55 Airbus jets.

Fernando Matos, the head of information technologies at TAP Maintenance and Engineering (TAP ME), is committed to maintaining the firm's technological edge by identifying and deploying systems that promise to streamline operations, improve processes and reduce costs. Recently, inspired by Airbus' pioneering work in implementing radio frequency identification across its value chain, Matos worked with TAP management and external consultants to employ the technology to bring new efficiencies to the airline's engine-overhaul operations. "We maintain our own engines, as well as for third-party fleets," he states. "It's important that we keep on top of promising technologies that give us a competitive and performance edge."

The team responsible for creating the Mobile Enabled Engine Repair Application (MEERA) system

Getting Started
Although the airline's engine-overhaul operations were considered well-run and fundamentally sound, TAP ME's managers understood that RFID offered a unique potential to take its jet-engine repair and maintenance operations to a greater level of performance and visibility. To help the airline maintain its competitive position, Matos says, he needs to be able to anticipate technology needs at least three to five years down the road. "Due to factors such as the economy, fuel prices and passenger preferences," he says, "we sometimes need to adapt our systems rapidly, or design entirely new ones."

While TAP ME had some previous experience using bar codes to track and trace tools, its technicians and managers were less than satisfied by the technology's real-world performance. "You have to be in line of sight to use bar codes, and that isn't always possible in our situation," Matos explains. RFID was identified as a technology that could deliver impressive benefits, regardless of production-floor conditions or external business or economic factors. "It's highly reliable, and that's very important to us," he says.

In January 2007, As TAP ME's managers began examining RFID's capabilities and potential, they envisioned a solution that could help to reliably track and organize the expensive and easy-to-lose engine components and tools during engine-overhaul operations. The team also began considering RFID as a way to boost the speed and efficiency of complex, labor-intensive operations involving the removal, processing and reassembly of hundreds of different and sophisticated components. Finally, the managers hoped RFID would help the airline grow its maintenance operations in an orderly fashion, thereby allowing management to acquire new capabilities and keep pace with evolving technologies and practices.

By October 2007, with the project's basic objectives identified, TAP ME's leaders joined with an Airbus aerospace team that had real-world experience with RFID maintenance and engineering, to examine potential system designs and gain insight into day-to-day operational benefits and requirements. "We are very used to industry partnerships," Matos states, "and we don't hesitate to seek out knowledge and insight from sources that can assist us in gaining new skills and capabilities."
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