Rockwell Collins Explores Ways to Benefit From RFID

By Beth Bacheldor

The aviation electronic equipment provider is using the technology to automate entry of a part's shipping information, and plans to use tags to track the location and status of each unit on its production floor.

Rockwell Collins, a provider of communications and aviation electronics solutions, has implemented a radio frequency identification system to comply with the business requirements of Airbus, one of its key customers. But rather than chalking up the deployment to just another cost of doing business, the company reports that it is looking for—and finding—ways in which to improve its own operations, and ultimately benefit its bottom line.

Airbus has long been a proponent of RFID, and is requesting that suppliers building parts for its new A350 XWB wide-body aircraft tag those components with high-memory EPC Gen 2 RFID tags for maintenance-tracking purposes (see A Flurry of High-Memory Tags Take Flight). According to Airbus, each A350 aircraft will have 3,000 tagged parts, 2,000 of which will be fitted with high-memory RFID tags. The planes are expected to be put into service in 2013.

Rockwell Collins has been selected to provide a number of products for the A350 XWB aircraft, with the contract potentially valued at approximately $2.5 billion. The firm is contributing information management and navigation equipment, as well as its fully integrated communication global work package, avionics data network, landing-guidance systems and trimmable horizontal stabilizer actuator (THSA). Additionally, Rockwell Collins was selected to provide navigation system components consisting of its ADF-900 automatic direction finder, DME-2100 distance-measuring equipment and VOR-900 VHF omnidirectional radio receiver.

Not all parts will need to be tagged, however, says Todd Boyle, a material and process engineer in Rockwell Collins' Advanced Industrial Engineering division—only those that will be on board the aircraft, per Airbus' requirements. Some parts will be used on the ground, in order to support the aircraft.

Rockwell Collins began working in earnest on its RFID project about a year and a half ago, though Boyle says the company has known about the RFID initiatives from Airbus—and its chief competitor, Boeing—for several years. "The technology wasn't mature enough at the time," he states. Although RFID has been around for a long time, he says, there were several challenges that have made it difficult to implement in the aviation industry. The tags needed to be rugged enough to withstand extreme environmental conditions while in the air, and be able to record detailed information.

For some time, Rockwell Collins has been involved in the development of the aviation industry's RFID standards. It has had a presence on the Air Transport Association's (ATA) Spec 2000 committee, which drafted an update to the Spec 2000 standard covering data to be included regarding automatic data-capture devices, such as RFID tags (see ATA Approves RFID Data Structures for Spec 2000). The updated standard requires that specific information be encoded on a tag, including serial and part numbers, as well as the product's manufacturer. An RFID tag used by aerospace customers—aircraft parts manufacturers and aircraft companies—must meet the ATA Spec 2000 standard.

Commercial RFID products compliant with the ATA Spec 2000 standard continue to hit the market. A few weeks ago, Massachusetts RFID chip and tag manufacturer Tego Inc. announced its TegoChip 2000, a 2-kilobit EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) chip (see Tego Offers New 2-Kilobit Chip). A tag made with the TegoChip 2000, according to Tego, would be cheaper and smaller than those produced using the higher-memory chips currently utilized by Airbus.

When Rockwell Collins began mapping out its internal, enterprise-wide implementation plans (in mid-2009, around the same time that the update to the ATA Spec 2000 standard was published) to meet Airbus' and other customers' requirements, Boyle and others—including those from the company's operations, manufacturing, engineering and international services divisions—created a cross-functional team to discuss how each group's needs would be met, and how each could support the project. "We wanted to ensure what we would come up would be a feasible and usable solution," Boyle says. Central to the team's focus was to develop a plan leveraging standard specifications and off-the-shelf technology, so that users would be able to easily record and read RFID data, no matter in which area of the company they worked, whether in engineering, manufacturing, shipping or services.

Airbus provided Rockwell Collins with plenty of support, Boyle notes, and the benefits to Airbus were clear: RFID tags will provide the airplane manufacturer with an automated and accurate method for tracking and recording each component's history, revealing where it was built, as well as any service work that may have been performed on it. Eventually, he says, every related activity will be stored on a part's tag—whether a software upgrade, or a calibration at the airport.

But the Rockwell Collins group has also focused much of its time on finding ways in which to derive internal benefits from RFID. "That was one of our topics," Boyle says. "We wanted to make sure everybody understood that while the main driver for our implementation was about meeting our customers' needs, we also wanted to educate the groups about RFID and the technology's potential. We had an open forum, and talked about how RFID, in general, could be used to improve our own processes, those processes in manufacturing, customer service, shipping, and how RFID can be used in all of those areas for tracking. All of this has fostered a lot of ideas."

Rockwell Collins is presently working with OATSystems, a division of RFID vendor Checkpoint Systems, which is serving as the solution architect and providing the software for the RFID handheld readers, along with the required middleware that serves as a translator between the RFID solution and Rockwell Collins' SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. In April 2011, OATSystems announced that Airbus had approved its ATA Spec 2000 RFID solution for tracking and tracing A350 XWB aircraft components across their full lifecycle. OATSystems and CSC jointly developed a packaged solution covering such use cases as creating birth records and updating repair maintenance histories (see RFID News Roundup: OATSystems, CSC Partner on Part-Marking Package for Airbus). The package, which includes RFID software, readers, training and support, offers multiple deployment options for Airbus A350 XWB suppliers, based on component type, production volume and enterprise systems. Mobile packages include handheld readers (such as those from Motorola Solutions), with additional options for fixed portals or smart tables.

Rockwell Collins is utilizing tags supplied by MAINtag, a French provider of RFID solutions. In January 2010, MAINtag signed a seven-year contract with Airbus to provide its EPC Gen 2 RFID tags, which contain as much as 8 kilobytes of memory and use RFID chips from Tego (see Airbus Signs Contract for High-Memory RFID Tags). Rockwell Collins is employing Motorola 9090-G RFID handheld interrogators.

Rockwell Collins' first RFID benefit out of the gate involves capturing shipping information for every part that leaves the warehouse and is transported to Airbus. Because that information is automatically fed into the SAP system, it will be married with the part's birth records—another benefit, the company reports. Rockwell Collins was able to accomplish this goal despite waiting until just before shipping to encode tags on the parts. The tags are affixed to the components during manufacturing, Boyle says, noting that "before products can pass final assembly, they have to have tags on them." But at that point in the process, the tag is blank.

Rockwell Collins, in cooperation with OATSystems, developed a process for writing the RFID data on the tags at the shipping area; an automated alert on the Motorola 9090-G RFID handheld notifies shipping personnel that a part ready for shipment has an RFID requirement. Personnel can then use the handhelds to wirelessly retrieve data regarding that part from the SAP system, such as its part and unit numbers. That information, once pulled from the SAP system, is then displayed on the handheld so that employees can verify it, after which the device is used to write the all data pulled from the SAP system to the tag. The shipping information is added, and is then wirelessly transmitted back to the SAP system and populated in that particular product's record.

By automating the entry of each part's shipping information into the SAP system, and directly into each product's individual record, Rockwell Collins is streamlining its information-gathering process. That, in turn, could help expedite advance shipping notices (ASNs) and billing, by automatically populating an ASN's or bill's fields with a product's data and shipping information. The shipping information can also be used for procuring components, managing parts inventory and other applications.

To date, Rockwell Collins has tagged and shipped fewer than a dozen components for the A350 XWB, but Boyle says that amount will increase several times during the next three to four months. As the company gains experience using the technology, it will begin expanding the existing solution. For example, Boyle says, the firm plans to begin writing data to tags earlier in the process, so that it can track the location and status of every unit on the production floor. What's more, he adds, there would be RFID interrogators and portals added throughout the production floor, in order to keep tabs on parts and monitor inventory levels. "Since the Airbus RFID project was a pretty big project," Boyle states, "affecting a lot of different groups, we initially have had to stay very focused, so we would not miss our deliverables."

In addition, Rockwell Collins expects to benefit from service data and other information that will be added to each part's tag, once the components are in the field. "If there is a damaged part, for example, that comes back to our facility, we would be able to see all calibration history and maintenance history," Boyle explains. "Then, we fix the damage, put that information on the tag and ship it back. The airliner would be able to read the tag when the part is received, and see what we had done."

Not only would that information be invaluable in servicing that specific part, Boyle says, but Rockwell Collins could also capture the information and share it with technicians and engineers testing and designing new or enhanced products. "Our test technicians could look at it, and that information may help us diagnose problems before they happen. There really is a lot of benefit we could garner from that visibility happening out in the field that we don't have now."