On the 10 million-square-foot campus of Spirit AeroSystems’ main assembly plant in Wichita, Kan., small, wireless radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags monitor in real time the location of 30,000 aircraft parts during their transformation from sheet metal to Boeing 737 fuselage. Assembly cycle times and the effort spent locating lost parts there have been substantially reduced.
At the Airbus factory in Hamburg, Germany, the number of RFID-tracked containers required to carry the parts to be installed in the cabins of new A380s was found to be 8 percent less than if the parts had to be tracked manually.
And at airports in Hong Kong, Las Vegas and in other cities worldwide, RFID tags track passengers’ baggage on their journey through the airport and on to planes. The potential for delays in airline scheduling has dropped and baggage-handling costs have been reduced.
While the benefits of RFID have been clearly delineated on the ground — from supply chains to assembly plants to airports — getting those benefits to extend to the airborne environment has so far proved elusive. Technology experts believe it’s high time RFID goes aloft.
"RFID is kind of funny. Some applications, for example within the U.S. railroad industry, are relatively established and have been found to work well," said Jeremy Landt, a pioneer in the field who researched the use of RFID at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Landt is now chief scientist at TransCore, Harrisburg, Pa., a transportation technology company.
"But in other applications, like with the airlines where it’s in its infancy, it’s creeping along. There’s been an enormous problem with (attaining) worldwide standards. There are problems with compatibility with other (radio) communications. There’s plenty of potential, but I can see why it’s going slow."
FAA in May 2005 published a RFID policy stating that passive RFID tags — transponders that do not have a dedicated power supply, but derive their operating power from a reader — pose no safety risk and are acceptable for use on civil aircraft under specified conditions. A standard published in December 2006 by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) — AS5678 — provides for the manufacture of "passive-only" RFID tags for aerospace.
Among other provisions, AS5678 establishes test requirements for the airborne use of passive RFID tags, in addition to compliance requirements with RTCA DO-160E for electromagnetic compatibility.
One of the first manufacturers to produce an aerospace-qualified RFID product was Confidex, of Tampere, Finland, which announced last spring its "Ironside" reusable passive UHF RFID tag had passed requirements of AS5678. Confidex declared itself "ready and waiting" for Boeing to introduce RFID tags on the 787 Dreamliner.
Unlike bar coding, its technological predecessor, RFID does not require line-of-sight communication. Data can be read through a human body, clothing and non-metallic materials. A microchip with an antenna — the "tag" — can be placed on a product’s packaging or on the product itself. The tag receives radio waves from local antennas communicating in the same frequency. The tag encodes the waves with information and transmits back to the antenna. The data is instantly downloaded to a receiver, or "reader."
The cost of the tag, which can be as low as one dollar, is a fraction of the overall costs of RFID. Most of the cost goes into software development, business systems and back office support. About one third of the costs are in the hardware, with the other two thirds going toward transforming the data into information that ultimately can be used to save costs.
That’s something that has become particularly critical for the airline industry. Figures to be released by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics in May will reveal that 2006 and 2007 were the first back-to-back net profit years for U.S. airlines since 1999-2000. That comes after an unprecedented five-year loss of $35 billion between 2001 and 2006.
"Despite the ambiguity of strong passenger growth accompanied by weaker freight demand, we can say clearly that 2007 was the best in recent memory," said International Air Transport Association Director General and CEO Giovanni Bisignani.
However, Bisignani added, "We can state equally clearly that there will be no encore performance in 2008. Oil prices are higher than ever. Economic uncertainty accompanying the U.S. credit crunch is broadening. And the slower growth for passenger demand in December sets the trend for the coming months. In a tough business environment the mantra remains the same: efficiency everywhere is everything."
Pankaj Shukla, director of RFID business development for Motorola, said an airline’s "under the wing" operations — refueling, restocking and restaffing — are areas where RFID can help cut airline turnaround times if the technology can be harmonized with equipment that runs those operations. Motorola manufactures a line of RFID tags, readers, antennas and accessories.
In February, Emirates Airlines and BAA, operator of London’s Heathrow airport, announced plans to evaluate Motorola’s RFID technology to improve baggage tracking for passengers traveling the Emirates route between Heathrow and Dubai. Motorola’s RFID technology is already in operation at the Hong Kong and Las Vegas airports, the company said.
"Most airports are running at peak, so any advantage in the meantime, to speed up and open up more capacity to airlines and the airport means more revenues, more fees and more customers spending time at airport shops," Shukla said.
Attaining efficiency and increased visibility that goes along with RFID tracking has so far been successfully tested and implemented mainly in "non-flyable" applications.
At Spirit AeroSystems, the largest tier-one supplier to Boeing and a partner on the 787 Dreamliner, the ability to track parts in a "closed loop" environment has been ongoing since 2003. "Right now it’s all being done for our own internal benefit," said Debbie Fogg, Spirit AeroSystems’ RFID projects manager.
The 60,000 parts that make up a 737 fuselage are tracked in the assembly plant using both passive and active RFID tags. Passive tags, which have a short life span and are typically made to be disposable, are used to monitor parts during the manufacturing process, in the time it takes to build an order — about eight to 12 weeks. Active tags, which contain their own battery source, are more expensive and are made to last much longer. They are placed on the roughly 4,000 pieces of equipment over which parts move, forklifts and portable belt lifts, for example.
While tracking parts during its own assembly process has proved a valuable time and cost savings practice, Spirit AeroSystems is starting to push RFID past the factory walls and out to its suppliers and customers.
"This year, we started interacting with both sides of our supply chain," Fogg said. "When RFID tracking occurs inside our own walls, we don’t have the security issues. Once we start pushing in both directions, we have to make sure infrastructure is secure. We see value in knowing when our parts arrive at our customers."
Fogg said the company continues to find compelling reasons to use RFID within its four walls. "We’re starting to track things that don’t fit the standard RFID tag, like tools which can be anywhere from four to five inches to 40 feet long. Or parts that have to go in and out of ovens, which would need a tag that can withstand the heat. We’ve gotten the low hanging piece complete, now we’re looking at what other things we can use it for."
Aerospace giants Boeing and Airbus have been using RFID tags for non-flying applications similar to Spirit AeroSystems. Last June, for instance, Airbus selected Odin Technologies, Dulles, Va., as an exclusive RFID system designer for "numerous projects throughout its supply chain and assembly operations."
After years of nailing down RFID standards for use in the aerospace supply chain, airframers consider the next major cost-savings improvements to be in the "flyable" arena, giving airlines the ability to track and monitor avionics and other parts after they’ve been installed.
In 2004, the Air Transport Association published a standard as part of its Spec 2000 (Chapter 9, Automated Identification and Data Capture) traceability standards, allowing airlines and manufacturers to use RFID to permanently identify parts and their life-cycle status, and allowing faster and more accurate identification of those parts during the maintenance and supply-chain processes as well as for cargo tracking.
But the ability to monitor a particular piece of equipment or pallet of cargo by radio frequency after it leaves the ground involves suppliers, manufacturers, airlines and government entities, all with varying levels of visibility requirements. Coordinating them has proved to be a difficult hurdle.
Boeing announced in October 2005 that it would use RFID tags for "maintenance-significant parts" on the 787 Dreamliner to improve configuration control and better manage parts maintenance and repair inventories. In April 2006, the airframer selected Intelleflex Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., to provide 64 kilobit, UHF silicon chips for the tags. Confidex said its Ironside RFID tag will contain the high-memory chip.
At the time of the Dreamliner announcement, Boeing said it had successfully completed two in-service evaluations of passive RFID "smart labels" on a FedEx MD-10 freighter. "The tests showed," Boeing said, "that passive RFID devices do not adversely affect the simultaneous operation of any aircraft systems or interfere with continued safety of flight."
Boeing and FedEx paired again in 2006 to evaluate the use of active RFID tags on an in-service MD-10 freighter. The active tags, provided by Identec Solutions, of Addison, Texas, were battery-powered and capable of reading at 300 feet compared to the 10-foot read range of passive tags.
The tags were installed in areas of the aircraft including the flight deck, avionics compartment, cargo compartment and wheel wells, and one aspect of the test was to identify potential electromagnetic inference. Following the evaluation, Boeing again found that "active RFID devices do not adversely affect the operation of any aircraft systems or interfere with continued safety of flight."
"We think it’s all coming together in 2008," said Kenneth Porad, program manager for automated identification programs at Boeing. "A lot of progress has been made to lay the infrastructure down. After all these years of work, we plan to have something commercially available off the shelf."
Contained within every RFID tag, Porad said, is the potential to slash cycle times and to solve in-service problems.
"We have 1,200 engineers that work in service engineering. There’s 14,000-plus Boeing airplanes flying today. We have customers managing these fleets, looking at in-service reliability, scheduled component removal trends and working with our supplier base to improve fleet reliability. With RFID, we can reduce that cycle time to reduce in-service problems and it saves us a lot of money," he said.
Having the extended memory promised by aerospace RFID tags allows for more potential savings across the supply chain by having part number, date of manufacture, serial number and country of origin instantly available within the secure network the company uses to store maintenance information with its airline customers and suppliers.
"Right now all that information is stored in separate databases — maintenance planning documents, fault isolation manuals — all over the place," Porad said. "But when the information gets stored on flyable RFID parts, it will be at a mechanic’s fingertips. It’s all about availability of information."
For the airlines, it may also be getting a leg up on the competition. Fast maintenance turnaround brought on by RFID can translate into improved on-time performance.
"Some of the airlines have seen an advantage of getting confirmation that the things that are supposed to be on the plane are actually on the plane," said Carlo Nizam, head of value-chain visibility and RFID at Airbus. "Each airline works slightly differently. It depends on their particular service levels and any competitive advantage with which they wish to differentiate themselves."
In March 2006, Airbus invited several airlines and MROs to Toulouse, France, for a two-day customer focus group. The purpose was to form the cornerstone of Airbus’s flyable RFID program.
"We showed the airlines our approach and got their feedback on it, and they gave us their opinions and ideas. Based on those ideas we created a series of pilot programs, which are ongoing," Nizam said.
"There’s been a lot of technology testing that says these tags on these planes can be read, which is very important. But no one has actually said these tags and this process with RFID actually adds significantly more value than without RFID. That’s the million-dollar question: Do RFID-enabled processes within the flyable area add more value, and if they do, what is the impact to the players involved? What do they have to change? If it’s a significant impact, it may blow the case (for flyable RFID) out of the water."
Airbus and Boeing, which share about 70 percent common suppliers, have deemed it imperative to work together, along with Bombardier and Embraer, on flyable RFID standards. "We make sure our RFID technology is based on open standards that are internationally recognized," said Nizam. "We don’t want our suppliers and our customers to have to deal with separate equipment and software to read them."
But Nizam says RFID technology will never be a goal in and of itself. "We’re trying to provide streamlined business processes with real time automated visibility," he said. "How we achieve that is through a combination of process redesign and enabling technologies, one of which is RFID. RFID is not the final destination."