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Monday, June 1, 2009

Read My Tag: Turn Time Savings with RFID

By Vicki P. McConnell, Technology Editor

Everyone wants to reduce service delays without sacrificing safety. Some heavy hitters believe that RFID can help do just that.

You get the order to find a special tool for an emergency service call. It’s the size of a minivan, but the maintenance depot is the size of four football fields. If computerized work-in-progress data isn’t up to the minute, it might take no less than an avenging angel to pinpoint the tool. One with a juttying jaw and steely eye, who reaches under a wing to withdraw a handheld radio frequency identification (RFID) device and promising to make your day by uttering, "Read my tag."

Getting Onboard with RFID

RFID technology allows a mechanic to use hand-held and stationary readers to interact with passive or active tags on tools, parts in service or repair, and strategic spares. Data can be received from and sent to (read and written) the silicon chip in the tag by way of an embedded antenna tuned to a specific radio signal at low (LF), high (HF) or ultrahigh frequency (UHF). Tag data can then be automatically fed into a company’s enterprise resource planning program to immediately update workflow and supply chain logistics. Depending on the system, tag read ranges can vary from 10 to 100-plus feet.

Mike Burkett, vice president of aerospace and defense research for AMR Research, assesses the state of RFID within the MRO industry as "beyond nascence but not yet at the tipping point to widespread adoption in commercial aviation. There is still a struggle with determining return on investment (ROI). Risk reduction may be the key parameter to establishing this."

Low risk and quick ROI have lead a number of RFID pilot projects. For about a year, Hamburg-based Lufthansa Technik (LHT) has been attaching RFID tags to documents accompanying components as they are removed, serviced or repaired, and reinstalled. Early goals include reduced manual data entry, accelerated repair cycle, and avoiding delivery errors. Part authenticity is automatically verified with this equipment. LHT is using Motorola MC9090-G handheld readers and XR480 fixed readers in Hamburg, Frankfurt, and at maintenance stations at all of the larger German airports. UPM Raflatec supplied its DogBone UHF Smart Label with 96 bits of EPC memory. According to Michael Scheferhoff, LHT’s RFID program manager, using RFID "means that Lufthansa no longer depends on ‘line of sight’ to obtain the installation information that a mechanic requires. We can identify controlled parts in the aircraft cabin that are slated for periodic inspection without the need to crawl under the seats or open and remove panels." He relates that LHT expects RFID technology to provide "greater supply chain visibility in repair processes so that production planning systems get more detailed information about where a part is, how long transportation took, and when the next process steps with that part can be started. This will provide additional means for prioritizing overall workflow."

Pankaj Shukla, Motorola’s director of RFID business development, comments that "RFID is about dynamically capturing mission critical data at the point of business activity — on the tarmac or within a flight line where time-sensitive decisions have to be made to ensure an aircraft’s safety status. Compared to manual data entry, RFID tags coupled with wireless networking and fixed and mobile RFID readers can offer orders of magnitude greater speed and accuracy for real-time visibility into the status of parts and work in progress." Shukla continues, "The opportunities for RFID in aviation are endless. The technologies continue to advance, and vendors and industry groups are already beginning to coalesce around standards extending the value of RFID across the industry."

Heavy Hitters Sign On

Since 2000, Boeing has tested passive and active RFID technology in 40 diverse pilot programs, both in the factory and onboard airplanes. Airline partners Delta Airlines, Japan Airlines, FedEx and UPS have participated. In a single time and motion study, Boeing demonstrated that the inspection task for in-cabin emergency equipment could be reduced from six hours by two mechanics to 8.5 minutes by using RFID tags scanned with hand-held readers.

Ken Porad, associate technical fellow and RFID program manager at Boeing, reports that these multiple pilot programs have demonstrated the potential for millions of dollars in savings. In verifying part pedigree alone, he estimates $100 million could be saved. RFID can also provide savings in track and trace of time and temperature-sensitive materials such as sealants, and in Boeing’s strategic spares inventory, worth about $45 billion. In 2005, Boeing publicly announced its intention to extend its reach with RFID into the maintenance and repair processes on its new 787 commercial aircraft. The airframer plans to require suppliers to apply passive UHF (915 MHz) RFID nameplates to around 700 flyable components within select rotables, line replaceable units (LRUs) and time-controlled parts. The target price for an extended memory tag is $13 to $15.

Intelleflex and other technology providers are slated to furnish the silicon chips that will go with an antenna into a ceramic inlay design for the tags. Suppliers of the tag package include Confidex, Brady Corp., Toppan Forms, and others. Boeing suppliers such as Rockwell Collins and Honeywell’s Aerospace Electronics Systems division will provide the know-how on best placement of tags on parts.

Making the 787 the first RFID-enabled aircraft will involve meeting Boeing’s criteria standard for every new technology on its aircraft: reduced per unit cost, reduced production cycle time and part defects, and increased customer satisfaction. Porad explains that gaining a program directive for RFID from the 787 team requires that "standards must be in place, global interoperability possible, hardware and software systems must be design and production ready, and sufficient risk must be mitigated."

Global interoperability is tied to the ratification of standards for RFID system components. Leading organizations involved in developing these standards include ATA, IATA, Society of Automotive Engineers/Aviation Division, ISO, and EPCglobal, a not-for-profit, by-subscription organization of RFID suppliers based in Brussels. EPCglobal’s RFID electronic product code (EPC) standards have been used to rate multiple RFID products under its Class 1, Gen 1 and Class 1, Gen 2 passive technology categories. The FAA has issued formal guidance for on-ground, high integrity, passive RFID tags with no on-chip power source operating on frequencies outside the published aviation frequency bands, and meeting installed equipment requirements of FAR 23, 25, 27, 29, and 1301. FAA has also released an Advisory Circular (AC 20-162) giving guidance for certification and operational approval for both passive and active RFID tags.

Boeing’s key competitor, Toulouse-based Airbus, has been using RFID since 1999 to track and trace tools, spares, and most recently, on component containers on the production assembly line for its new A380 commercial aircraft. This spring, the company launched a multimillion-dollar, multi-year RFID initiative across its manufacturing operations. Paul Antoine Calandreau, project manager for flyable RFID, describes the OEM’s three phase, lifecycle based approach as an Auto-ID inspired business improvement program. "Phase I looks at supply chain, warehouse logistics and distribution processes. Phase II moves deeper into the Airbus production system and focuses on global transportation, manufacturing, industrial and assembly processes. Phase III is the flyable program that will help automate the lifecycle management of aircraft parts and improve configuration, repair and maintenance processes providing key benefits to airline customers, MROs and suppliers." He adds that passive tags will answer most of the needs in the short term, although Airbus is also testing active tags.

Calandreau believes Auto-ID technologies can "boost turn time on parts and testing when there is incomplete manually recorded information between the flight line and MRO depot." In his opinion, at least four kilobytes of memory are needed. For its part, Boeing has suggested that optimum RFID tag memory capacity should reach 64 kilobytes so as to put maintenance history, aircraft configuration control, warranty status, and airworthiness directives at a mechanic’s fingertips via an RFID reader. That requirement may be answered by Fujitsu, which announced a 64-kilobyte, EPC C1G2-approved tag earlier this year. System memory uses 1,280 bytes with 64,256 bytes available for user memory.

Software Sort

Specialized RFID data collection and management software may include middleware, edgeware, and firmware. Key suppliers working with Airbus are IBM and OATSystems. IBM’s service-oriented architecture is based on its WebSphere Premises Service and Business Process Management portfolio. Combined with OATSystems’ Foundation suite, asset tracking and work-in-progress programs, the software products gives Airbus the ability to distribute computing power to devices such as RFID readers, handheld devices, servers, and any combination of these. Mike Kloke, IBM’s manager of RFID solutions architecture, comments that Airbus has a holistic perspective for applying RFID across its entire value chain. Using IBM’s software platform allows specific device integration at the front end, identification of actionable events, as well as process change implementation that creates new value in overall operations.

Scott Burroughs, sensors and actuators solutions software strategist with IBM, states that "applying RFID to MRO is somewhat farther along in Airbus’s implementation after near-term projects deliver easy, quick process changes with business value to help establish a comfort level with this technology. Our software helps integrate RFID data into actual, present business practices, without building interdependencies between the system layers." Burroughs believes the next innovation of RFID tags on flyable components will occur within three to five years.

Paul Cataldo, vice president of OATSystems, states that "Flexible architecture is key to bring information and processing logic out to the edge where the action is happening, to support local personnel at the physical point of processing and enable them to be proactive, while also providing global information and control to enterprise management." The eventual replacement of paper tags by RFID tags will, in his opinion, "provide a staggering time savings, days to hours to minutes, orders of magnitude improvement. For example, all the parts that go into the assembly of an aircraft could be captured to automatically produce an electronic parts manifest."

Airbus has selected ODIN Technologies as its exclusive hardware infrastructure integration partner in a five-year contract to help deploy the OEM’s enterprise-wide RFID initiative. As explained by CEO Patrick Sweeney, ODIN applies a physics approach to applying RFID technology. "We look at the environment or real world operating conditions, radio frequency path loss, the effect of substrate material in signature mapping and optimization, the hardware, and the parameters of the application or end use business process." ODIN has cultivated close relationships with RFID tag and reader vendors, but is no shrinking violet when it comes to the software side of things. The company offers its Easy Suite products to assist early adopters in taking to RFID technology.

Sweeney sees the use of RFID in MRO functions as "a big win in moving from a reactive to proactive maintenance strategy. Think about a major overhaul with 600 parts coming off a single aircraft. Studies have shown that there is an 18 percent error rate in the manually recorded information regarding these parts as they are inspected, repaired or replaced and move during overhaul process. Using RFID tags immediately boosts the accuracy of part information and location, which reduces time spent waiting on or locating parts." On the flight line, he suggests RFID tag data will accommodate proactive scheduling of LRU replacement, including ordering parts and billing ahead of schedule. "This gets rid of those ‘need it yesterday’ firestorms."

Who’s Your Daddy

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is the world’s largest user of RFID technology within its inventory warehouses, MRO facilities, and combat field operations for all branches of the U.S. military. Passive, semi-active and active RFID technology is being tested and certified by the DoD to maximize the high-volume logistics of defense assets. The Air Force has conducted several pilot programs using active RFID tags to track vehicles in combat areas, specific tools, and during air-to-air refueling. RFID tags have also been integrated within real-time location systems for several hundred ground maintenance vehicles such as hydraulic, flight line, HVAC and power carts.

Earlier this year, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics requested its suppliers of parts and materials for the F-35 Lightning joint strike fighter to begin using RFID tags on all shipments by this year’s end. Also, the company’s 14-hangar, 161-acre aircraft maintenance and modifications facility in Greenville, S.C., has implemented RFID within the periodic maintenance conducted there on Navy aircraft. SmartChain Enterprise Platform (SCEP) software provided by Lockheed subsidiary, Savi Technology, helps track hot parts (mission critical aircraft components), and has contributed to a substantial reduction in time for the critical parts alert process. This makes a mechanic’s job easier by putting needed parts in their hands more quickly.

Confident Taggers

The heart of every RFID tag is the silicon chip inside it, but just as important is the way the chip is packaged to interface with the antenna and reader signal. Sam Liu, director of marketing for Intelleflex, believes that there will be a ready market for a variety of tag types and memory capabilities. Intelleflex’s 64-kilobit chip will enable a number of MRO applications that require data to be resident on the tag. "Ultimately, it becomes a business decision of cost versus benefit that will drive the selection," he says.

Hammer, Web, Frog, and Dog Bone tags from UPM Raflatac are examples of the company’s UHF RFID product portfolio. Data capacity development is ongoing, including memory ranging from 96 to 512 bits, as well as improved mechanical robustness and on-metal functionality. Prices range from 10 to 50 cents per tag.

Boosting turn time is a key element of MRO services that myTECHNIC hopes to provide for customers in its new multi-hangar, 46,200-square-meter facility at Sabiha Gokcen Intl Airport in Istanbul. The new MRO facility, built from the ground up on lean business principles, has selected an RFID system from AeroScout, Inc. to wirelessly achieve a real-time view of the location and status of parts, tools and personnel. Andris Berzins, vice president of EMEA with AeroScout, says the company invented the first wi-fi based active RFID tag, "which reduces the need for single purpose, expensive, high maintenance readers."

Amir Ben Assa, AeroScout’s industry solutions marketing director, cites the wi-fi advantage in answering the challenges of myTECHNIC’s multistory, high ceiling facility construction. Read range of the wi-fi tags is up to 100 meters indoors. "Tracking parts with wi-fi tags as they move, combined with our Enterprise Visibility software, can reduce maintenance interruptions and expedite operations since you know where the part is at all times." He adds that testing of the RFID tracking system with customers has helped reduce the time spent looking for or waiting on parts by 30 percent.

"The Holy Grail in aircraft RFID tags will be those with sufficient memory to encompass maintenance records and other relevant information to support efficient maintenance operations," states Kevin Donahue, managing director of RFID TagSource. He believes the amount of memory on RFID chips will continue expanding fairly rapidly once pilot and low volume projects show positive ROI and process improvement. Further, he expects a cost range for durable aircraft tags to range from $3 to $6 on metal, and $15 to $30 to survive temperature extremes and provide extended memory beyond what is available today.

Long Haul and Luck

One day, it’s possible that RFID smart tags on every aircraft component might be capable of authenticating the part manufacturer, part number, inspection and replacement timeline, complete maintenance history, updated repair manuals and ADs, eliminating the need to return to a central data port. In the meantime, RFID tags will need the muscle to withstand the temperature and vibration extremes of flight and ground servicing, plus all the skydrol, hydraulic fluid, oil, water, and bird puckey thrown their way. Beyond R&D, there’s another element needed, which is true for applying any new technology. That swaggering, tool-finding angel puts it this way: "Do you feel lucky today, do you?"

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