RFID Takes Wing in Aviation

By Bob Violino

Airbus and Boeing are turning to RFID to give their supply chains and manufacturing operations a lift. Tagging of parts could reduce counterfeiting and provide other supplier benefits.

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The challenge: Track some 6 million parts made in as many as 33 different countries, and ensure that each one gets to the assembly line at the moment it’s needed or risk slowing down production of a $20 million wide-body jet. That’s what Airbus and The Boeing Co. are faced with every day. And federal aviation regulations require that each part and its history be tracked individually. It’s such a monumental task that the two archrivals have joined forces to automate the process by deploying RFID in their supply chain.

Airbus and Boeing, which together own the market for large commercial jets, have been holding industry forums around the world to drum up support from customers, parts suppliers and regulatory agencies for the use of RFID. Unlike Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense, Airbus and Boeing don’t plan to issue an RFID mandate. “We’re not requiring suppliers to put tags on parts,” says Kenneth D. Porad, program manager for Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ automated identification program. “We’re providing a road map to get there and taking a systematic approach to working together with suppliers.”

This year, Airbus and Boeing held forums with both suppliers and airline customers in Atlanta, Hong Kong and Munich, Germany. The seminars covered the technology’s potential benefits, as well as challenges. “We want to avoid the hype cycle,” says Porad. “There are big promises with RFID technology, but there has to be a business case.”

The business case has yet to be proved, but Airbus and Boeing believe RFID could dramatically reduce costs throughout the industry. The two airplane manufacturers expect to achieve internal efficiency in their facilities as they track parts and work in process. Airbus and Boeing should also be able to reduce the cost of receiving goods and including a record of those goods in databases of inventory, while reducing errors and improving inventory accuracy.

RFID should also enable the airplane manufacturers and their suppliers to reduce inventory across the supply chain, since RFID would provide better visibility of parts from the time they are produced until they are put on a plane. And RFID should allow everyone in the supply chain, including the airlines that buy planes, to authenticate parts that have been certified by regulatory authorities and thus reduce the possibility that counterfeit parts are introduced into the supply chain.

After the planes go into service, the technology could dramatically improve the way they are repaired. Each day, Boeing sends 4,650 shipments of spare parts to its airline customers worldwide. The airlines have an estimated $45 billion of unused spare parts on their shelves. RFID should provide the visibility that enables airlines to trim these inventories while ensuring parts are always where they need to be to keep the planes flying. It should also help repair shops reduce the labor needed to track maintenance cycles (some parts must be reconditioned or discarded after a certain number of miles flown) and repair histories.

Boeing and Airbus will likely present more detailed information about how they plan to use the technology within a year. “We intend to implement RFID as a commercial standard practice,” says Porad. “We’re now in the process of defining our requirements as an enterprise. Within a year from now, we’ll have a fully defined set of requirements, and we’ll impose those on new procurements. We won’t go back to people who’ve been delivering parts for 15 years and force them to retrofit parts. But we think they will do that anyway.”

Leading by example

Boeing and Airbus have deployed RFID internally for a variety of applications. Boeing has tested RFID tags for tracking parts as they move through its facility in Wichita, Kan., where the company designs, fabricates and assembles fuselage structures, struts and engine parts for nearly all its commercial jetliners.

The passive UHF system enables parts to be tracked automatically as they’re received and as they move from shop to shop within the facility to the assembly line. In the past, workers manually scanned bar codes on parts (or on the paperwork that has to accompany all parts). The system was labor intensive, and it left Boeing with limited visibility of a part if someone forgot to scan it. The new system allows a dozen or more parts to be identified as they’re driven past a reader and gives managers greater visibility into the parts pipeline.

Three years ago, Boeing started using a 125 kHz RFID system in its Frederickson, Wash., plant, which manufactures structural parts for commercial aircraft. Tags are placed on parts so they can be tracked as they go through acid baths, painting and other processes before being placed on a plane. The tags are hermetically sealed to withstand the acid and paint. The tags are used for ID purposes only and are removed once the part leaves the plant.

Airbus began testing RFID four years ago, when it launched a system to identify and track the location of tools it lends to airline maintenance centers. The technology has also helped reduce the time it takes to check out tools by 25 percent because it enables Airbus to automatically calibrate tools, a process that must be conducted each time the tools are used, says Jens Heitmann, senior manager for system-and-equipment standardization processes and methods. In the past, tools had to be sent back and forth between physical locations, but now the calibration can be done remotely using data stored on tags.

These internal projects are relatively simple compared with tagging airplane parts from the time they are manufactured until they are taken out of commission. The heat from engines or the cold of the external environment when planes are in flight could destroy the tags or the data on the tags. And it’s not clear whether RFID systems could interfere with the equipment on the plane. Boeing has been conducting tests related to each issue with its customers, in conjunction with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

In February, Boeing and FedEx completed a 90-day pilot program. Passive 13.56 MHz tags based on the ISO 15693 standard were placed on parts on a FedEx plane (see Standard Deviation for a look at the technology Boeing and Airbus will use). The aim was to identify potential electromagnetic interference from the plane’s engine and electronics systems and detrimental environmental effects on tags while the plane was in operation; evaluate the integrity of the data on the RFID chips to make sure it wasn’t corrupted by harsh environments while the plane was in flight; make sure the tags would remain on the parts; and access the concept and suitability of the technology for FedEx’s fleet of planes.

Porad says the results revealed no interference with the plane’s systems or impact on RFID data integrity. Boeing plans a second pilot with FedEx later this year. They will use the same FedEx plane and perform the same tests, this time using 915 MHz EPC passive tags. Boeing is also planning tests with Delta on some of its planes. The companies plan to test 13.56 MHz tags and 915 MHz tags on up to eight Boeing 757 twin-engine aircraft. Part of the trial includes using hermetically sealed tags attached to Pratt & Whitney engines, to see how the tags withstand temperatures of up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Supply-side economics

Implementing RFID throughout the airplane manufacturing industry supply chain won’t come without hurdles. The high cost of tagging numerous parts will be borne by the suppliers. Before considering deployments, the suppliers must determine how their processes can be improved through the use of RFID, says Nick Evans, global lead, emerging technology at BearingPoint, a consulting and systems integration firm.

Despite the high cost of tags today—20 to 60 cents apiece, depending on volumes purchased and the amount of memory on the tag—Evans believes suppliers have much to gain from RFID. Most significantly, they can improve processes by knowing the precise location of parts. And by uniquely identifying parts using RFID, they can create electronic audit trails and maintenance histories. This will help reduce the counterfeiting of parts, which costs the suppliers money, and cut down on the labor needed to comply with FAA paperwork regulations.

Boeing’s Porad says the real benefits for suppliers will come when RFID is widely used: “We all have business processes that could be improved significantly with this technology, but it’s about sharing data.”

Today, Boeing shares information with suppliers about plane configurations, ordering and shipping. The plan is to store RFID-generated data in Boeing’s existing database that’s used for parts information gathered via bar code systems. The database will be made available to business partners. The information will be more accurate and timely, enabling suppliers to reduce inventories while still delivering parts to Boeing when they need to be replenished.

Some suppliers are already moving ahead with internal RFID projects. Honeywell International’s Aerospace Electronics Systems division in Phoenix, which makes flight navigation systems, pilot displays and other products, began a test program earlier this year in which it’s using a combination of RFID and bar codes to track the parts as they move through the factory and are shipped to aircraft manufacturers.

The company plans to test systems at various frequencies to determine how they will perform under different environmental conditions and how best to place tags on parts. Honeywell will ship parts with the tags Boeing and Airbus have asked for, but the company plans to look at other types of RFID technology for other applications, such as the movement of materials and the shipment of containers prior to parts installation, that don’t directly involve Boeing or Airbus.

“First we have to figure out what types of tags we should be using, and then we have to look at compatibility issues,” says Dewey Whittaker, staff engineer at Honeywell AES. “If tags are placed on metal or liquid or in certain places, there could be a problem with signal integrity. Then there are issues where parts might not have the space or size to accommodate tags.

Honeywell AES was using bar codes to collect data related to part histories, inventories, billing and repairs, and sharing this data with Airbus and Boeing when those two customers announced the joint RFID effort. So Honeywell AES is accelerating its plans to switch from bar codes to RFID. In addition to reducing labor costs associated with manual scanning and improving data accuracy, Honeywell AES expects that having real-time data through the RFID system will provide additional benefits. The company will be able to more quickly check on the status of a part and, if needed, make necessary repairs or replace the part.

Intelligent data

Lockheed Martin, a Bethesda, Md.-based company that competes with Boeing on defense contracts, has identified RFID as a “critical” technology, says Ajit Kapoor, director of IT/architecture framework. The company has launched five “pre-implementation” pilots of RFID in its supply chain, including some tests of EPC technology with business partners and customers. These programs will be completed by year-end, at which time Lockheed Martin will determine how to proceed with RFID.

“We’ve been looking to streamline processes, and we knew three years ago that this was going to be a critical technology for the company,” Kapoor says. The need to deploy RFID became even more important for Lockheed Martin after the U.S. Department of Defense issued a mandate that all suppliers put RFID tags on shipments beginning in 2005. Lockheed supplies the DOD not only with aircraft, including the F-16 and F/A-22 fighters, but also airborne defense, communication, missile, radar, submarine warfare, satellite and reconnaissance/surveillance systems.

Lockheed Martin is exploring how it will manage the terabytes of data RFID systems will provide. This data must be processed and analyzed by business intelligence solutions, integrated with back-end ERP systems, linked into customer relationship management systems and delivered as services to all the stakeholders within the company.

Another goal is to take advantage of the fact that RFID provides real-time data. “It now takes a week to find out if something is there or not; sometimes we have no idea where things went,” says Kapoor. He adds that technology as a commodity doesn’t provide a competitive edge, but it’s “using these technologies to deliver reliable, manageable and flexible solutions that will make us a breed apart.”

It’s not exactly a race to be the first to take advantage of RFID systems, but clearly the major players in the airplane manufacturing industry are looking for an edge today while preparing for the widespread use of the technology tomorrow. Boeing is convinced the technology will help transform the company and the rest of the airline manufacturing industry. “We’re laying the foundation now for the factory of the future,” says Boeing’s Porad, “and it will be RFID-enabled.”