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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

RFID Use in Tracking Parts

John Persinos

The use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags for highly precise tracking in supply chains is crossing over from the consumer world to emerge as a mainstream technology in the aviation maintenance sector.

Propelled by new mandates at major retailers such as Wal-Mart, and by initiatives at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), growing numbers of aviation companies are adopting RFID, a "paradigm-shifting" innovation that is generating operational efficiencies and strategic advantages within supply chains — but considerable concerns among MRO managers who still aren’t sure how to handle the technology.

The benefits and challenges of RFID have formed a recurring theme in recent Aviation Today-sponsored podcasts and webinars related to aviation maintenance. You can access these emedia events, on demand, in our archives at www.AviationToday.com. Aviation Maintenance magazine also has reported on the utility of RFID in tracking aircraft parts in a supply network that gets more extended, and more global, every day.

The Pentagon is making a big push in transformational war fighting capabilities and so-called "net-centric warfare," all of which require the sort of sensor innovations provided by RFID. This technology will play a big role in the military’s effort to become a leaner, more rapidly deployable force, especially in the asymmetrical war against terrorism in regional hot spots around the globe.

The Pentagon is exploring new technologies — including RFID — as part of its effort to shed anachronistic Cold War armaments. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), reconnaissance drones, and a slate of 21st-century weapons systems require sensors and wireless capabilities exemplified by RFID. These systems already are proving their worth in the harsh battlefield conditions of Afghanistan and Iraq and enhancing the ability to maintain and repair aircraft in the hot, sandy climate of the Middle East.

Many aviation companies are stepping up to the RFID plate. Aviall, for example, has devoted considerable resources into state-of-the-art technology to enhance its ability to quickly and accurately get the right part to the right customer, at the right time. Indeed, the company ships 99 percent of in-stock parts the same day it gets the order. This is made possible with the use of advanced software and RFID tags.

The list of new RFID contracts in aviation keeps getting longer. Notably, as reported by Aviation Maintenance in March, the DoD extended the time and increased the value of its RFID contract with Savi, a Lockheed Martin company. The contract was extended to Jan. 31, 2009 and its ceiling lifted by $60 million to $483 million for the company’s RFID products and services. Savi is a developer and provider of RFID-based supply chain solutions for defense, government and commercial customers.

RFID systems can be used anywhere along the aircraft supply chain, on nearly anything. RFID is applicable anytime that a unique identification system is required. The tag can convey information as simple as the location of a part on a warehouse pallet, or as complex as instructions on how to assemble an airplane.

The increasing importance of making a business case for RFID was underscored in a recent interview I conducted with Robert Clarke, Ph.D, associate professor of Michigan State University’s School of Packaging. He told me that RFID is still undergoing a rocky transition from broad theoretical applications to real-world practicality. Dr. Clarke said the technology offers enormous potential and benefits, but it’s still surrounded by unrealistic expectations. He said RFID technology one day would live up to — and exceed — the hype. But first, a lot of hard work remains.

A major hurdle, Dr. Clarke said, is the limitation of current technology. "The problem is that RFID physics don’t always allow you to easily synthesize the data, and that’s what many companies are running up against right now," he explained. That said, Clarke emphasized that RFID already is proving its mettle in many niches, especially aviation.

Clarke asserted that getting the best and highest use of RFID — i.e., real-time actionable information — requires interpretive analysis whereby users aren’t only reading the information as it’s being scanned, but they’re simultaneously putting it into historical context. That’s today’s challenge for MRO operations, as they grapple with this exciting but sometimes vexing technology.

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