Will RFID Take Off in Aerospace?

By Mark Roberti

New standards for formatting data stored on tags, as well as tagging requirements from Airbus, could give the technology a lift.

  • TAGS

In June 2009, the Air Transport Association (ATA), a U.S. airline association charged with establishing e-business standards for the global airline industry, published a set of standards that covers the data to be included on automatic data-capture devices, including radio frequency identification tags, as well as the structure of that information. The move paves the way for aircraft makers, airlines, maintenance companies and parts suppliers to track parts and parts histories with RFID. So does this mean RFID is now ready for takeoff in the aerospace sector?

The aerospace industry is ready to embrace RFID, but adoption will likely be steady, rather than swift. Airbus has told its suppliers that they will need to put RFID tags on some parts for its A350 extra-wide-body aircraft, which is under development. The number of parts involved will initially be 2,000 to 5,000, and tagging will begin in 2011 for the plane, which is scheduled to go into service in 2013. Airbus is still refining the precise requirements, and the company intends to work with its suppliers over the next two years to help them meet those requirements.

Boeing had been planning to ask its suppliers—about 80 percent of which overlap with Airbus’ supplier base—to tag parts. Ken Porad, associate technical fellow at Boeing, says the recent delay in production of the 787 Dreamliner—a new high-capacity, low-emissions passenger plane—due to a minor flaw discovered in the aircraft design caused the leadership team overseeing production of the aircraft to postpone plans to tag parts. Porad says that before the end of the year, his group will recommend specific parts to be tagged based on use cases the group has developed. “We have more than 65 full-time people working on 52 different RFID projects within Boeing,” he says. “We remain totally committed to using the technology, but parts tagging has been delayed.”

Tracking parts could benefit aircraft manufacturers by making it easier to find parts in inventory and needed at the assembly line. It could benefit parts manufacturers (and the flying public) by reducing counterfeiting of parts. And tracking parts as well as parts histories could benefit the airlines by making it easier for them to maintain aircraft and manage parts inventories. But tracking parts and parts histories with RFID is a major change in the way the industry operates, and other key issues need to be addressed before RFID becomes the most common way to track parts.

First, there is still more work to be done to create standards for capturing and sharing data. ATA has approved a data structure regarding what information should be stored on tags used on parts. High-memory tags (which will hold 64 kilobits of data) will include information on each part’s “birth record”—that is, a code indicating the company that made it, as well as the part’s date of manufacture, country of origin, part number and serial number. These tags will also have “current data” about the items to which they are attached. If a part has been refurbished or had new software added, for example, that information would be stored on the tag. In addition, the tag will have an open area of memory for users to add whatever information they like, such as notes by a mechanic who serviced the part. Low-memory tags would be encoded with just the birth record and possibly limited current information.

These new RFID data standards approved by ATA are part of Spec 2000—a comprehensive set of e-business specifications, products and services designed to enhance supply-chain efficiencies. Airbus and Boeing have been working together since 2004 to create a comprehensive set of RFID standards for the aerospace sector, but agreeing on what data the tag will hold is only a first step toward comprehensive data-sharing standards.

Both Airbus and Boeing would like to use Electronic Product Code (EPC) standards to track parts and be able to share information about parts and parts histories with their airline customers and companies that maintain the aircraft for airlines. EPCglobal has set up an Industry Action Group for the aerospace and defense industries (the U.S. Department of Defense has many suppliers in the aerospace sector as well). This group is defining how EPC technology will be used in both industries, what data needs to be collected, and how it will be shared.

“The group has put forth requirements for the tag data standard to be revised to include the extended memory structures called for in Spec 2000,” says Sue Hutchinson, director of product management for EPCglobal US. “They needed to focus on more fundamental work before they are ready to talk about sharing data.”

The Industry Action Group must agree on a vocabulary for the data that needs to be shared via the Electronic Product Code Information Service (EPCIS)—a set of standards and protocols for sharing EPC data over the Internet. In the retail industry, for instance, goods can be labeled in the EPCIS as “for sale” or “unsalable.” Those terms are meaningless in the aerospace industry, so a vocabulary must be established for parts on planes, being refurbished and so on.

Spec 2000 does not specify a method for sharing data. Based on the current version of the standard, which is updated every year, a company that performed maintenance on a part would be identified on the tag, and a supply-chain partner seeking additional information would have to contact that company directly. The committee that drafted the specification did consider including requirements for using EPCIS standards, but some ATA member companies felt an EPCIS-based system would not be a cost-effective means of sharing data in the near term.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is the synchronization of data between the tag and back-end IT systems, which are the systems of record for airline regulatory bodies, such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). If mechanics are replacing a part on a plane on the tarmac and don’t have access to back-end systems via a wireless network, how do they know the data on the tag is authentic and the most current available? And if they make a change to a part, such as upgrading firmware, how do they write that to the tag and ensure that it’s updated in the back-end systems? In addition, what data should be shared among aircraft manufacturers, airlines and maintenance companies? And who is responsible for maintaining the system of record?

There’s also the issue of changing business processes. Today, parts suppliers and manufacturers share data via electronic data interchange (EDI). Airlines share data with manufacturers, maintenance companies and parts suppliers via EDI and other point-to-point systems. Switching to EPCIS would enable them to share the same data easily with internal applications and partners, but would require new business processes and IT infrastructure. And it could take years to change how mechanics and technicians handle parts and update parts data.

The availability of high-memory tags could be an issue if growth ramps up quickly. In December 2007, Boeing approved a 64-kb chip from Intelleflex. But only two companies that use the chip in EPC-compliant (ISO 18000-6C) tags—Confidex and Intermec Technologies—have passed the AS5678 testing, which ensures the transponders will withstand the harsh environment on a plane. These companies can manufacture tags, but they don’t have large stocks of inventory available for sale, and it will take time for companies that have created high-memory tags, such as Fujitsu and Tego, to pass the AS5678 testing.

Still, RFID adoption will continue at a steady pace in the aerospace industry. Frost & Sullivan forecasts that RFID spending in the U.S. aerospace market will grow from $14.5 million in 2005 to $62 million in 2012. In Europe, spending is expected to rise from $2.9 million in 2005 to $12.1 million by 2012.

That’s because there’s a lot of value in RFID-tagging parts, even with minimal data-sharing standards and few changes to business processes. Suppliers can reduce counterfeiting, manage inventory more efficiently and automate shipping of parts. Manufacturers can automate receiving of tagged parts. Airlines and maintenance companies can use the RFID tags to identify parts on planes without removing them and manually recording a serial number etched into the part.

“I think you’ll see adoption of RFID moving at an organized pace,” Hutchinson says. “For one thing, the value of the parts that are being tagged is high, which makes it easier to get a return on investment, and Boeing and Airbus have been piloting the technology for several years. They understand the benefits and will likely roll it out in an organized, well-thought-out way.”

Photo: ©2008 Airbus S.A.S