The “Fly-by-Wire” Supply Chain

By Mark Roberti

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The first flight-control systems used levers, pulleys and cables to enable pilots to adjust movable aerodynamic surfaces. These were replaced by hydraulic systems that enabled pilots to control wing flaps and ailerons more easily and more precisely. Both of these systems were bulky and prone to failure. The industry took a great leap forward with the “fly-by-wire” concept pioneered by Airbus, which lets pilots use electrical impulses to control flight systems with greater precision and less risk of mechanical failure—or even put the planes on autopilot.

Airbus is now pioneering a fly-by-wire supply chain in which radio frequency identification tags and other visibility technologies provide the data used to digitally manage the supply chain. The aim is to use RFID technology throughout its operations to improve efficiencies and reduce costs for Airbus (see Airbus’ Grand Plans for RFID).

While its archrival Boeing has focused its RFID efforts primarily on parts marking and tracking parts’ histories, Airbus has taken a more holistic approach. It has run extensive pilots to determine how RFID can deliver benefits in such areas as tracking supplies and reusable containers with their contents as they move through the supply chain and arrive in perfectly choreographed sequence. Its next big pilot will examine RFID’s ability to improve manufacturing operations by tracking large components such as wings and fuselage sections. And then, finally, Airbus will look at RFID to improve in-service support processes, including operational, maintenance and payload-tracking applications.

RFID has already started to pay off for Airbus. The company also wants to work with its customers and suppliers to achieve benefits across the supply chain.

One key to achieving supply-chain benefits is the ability to share data securely with suppliers in a standardized format. EPCglobal has developed and ratified such network standards, and our feature story looks at how companies plan to use those standards to track goods in the global supply chain (see The Network Effect).

The hospitality industry isn’t looking to share data with supply-chain partners—at least, not yet. This issue’s Vertical Focus reveals that hotels, restaurants and amusement parks are more focused on employing RFID applications to attract and keep customers by providing better service (see As You Like It).

It’s exciting to see RFID being put to work in so many different industries and in so many different ways. I’m particularly impressed with Airbus’ approach, because it leverages the same RFID infrastructure across many applications, which means that the system will start paying for itself quickly. I’m also excited that Carlo Nizam, the head of Airbus’ RFID efforts, will discuss this approach in a keynote address at RFID Journal LIVE! Europe, which is being held in Amsterdam on Nov. 6-8. It’s a great opportunity for manufacturing companies to learn how to do RFID right.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal.