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11/22/2004
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RFID Tags Fly With Airplane Parts

Boeing and Airbus use RFID tags to make it easier to track, maintain, and replace the thousands of parts that make up airplanes.

Radio-frequency identification is already making a name for itself helping retailers, manufacturers, distributors, and packagers understand where products are at any point in the supply chain. Now RFID is moving into other business processes: Boeing Co. and Airbus S.A.S. are using the technology to tag individual airplane parts so it's easier to track, maintain, and replace them.

The initiatives aren't the two companies' first use of RFID, but they represent aggressive plans to further leverage the real-time and detailed capabilities of RFID technology. Five years ago, Boeing began using RFID in aircraft tool management and equipped all of its tools and toolboxes with RFID microchips that contained history as well as shipping, routing and customs information. Similarly, Airbus began RFID tagging its ground equipment and tools four years ago.

Now Boeing has an RFID project under way in its 7E7 Dreamliner program launched in April, where time-controlled, life-limited parts and replaceable units have been identified with RFID "smart labels." These smart labels contain a microchip and an antenna and store data, including part and serial numbers, manufacturer codes, country of origin, date of installation and maintenance, and inspection information. This information can be particularly useful in the maintenance of airplanes because the service history of a part is stored on the RFID label as it goes thorough different stages of its life cycle, says Kenneth Porad, automated identification program manager at Boeing.

Moreover, RFID tags built to the next-generation specification being developed by EPCglobal Inc., the industry group overseeing many RFID standards, can be reused. That will make it easier for Boeing to keep up with changing part numbers. Before bar codes, Boeing used to stamp the numbers into steel plates affixed to parts. If a number changed, Boeing would have to stamp the new number into a new plate. "That was not cost-effective at all," says Porad. "When we moved to bar-coded name plates, they were still static. But our [part] numbers are not static because they change all the time, so to support maintenance, we envision RFID to be the answer."

Airbus says its new A380 superjumbo airplane will have passive RFID chips on removable parts, which are replaceable units with short life cycles, according to Jens Heitmann, senior manager of systems standardization, process, and methods at Airbus. For example, a wing of an airplane is a nonremovable part with a 30-year life cycle, whereas a passenger seat has a five-year life cycle, and brakes are usually changed every 1,000 landings; both are considered removable parts.

"When we put RFID chips on parts, we want to increase the quality of the data handling," Heitmann says. Airbus will continue to use text and bar codes to keep track of parts data, but "we would also put in an RFID chip with the history of the part," that can be quickly accessed with handheld scanners. "We could use RFID to do routine checks before a flight, for example, making sure that a lifejacket is under each seat," he says.

The supplier contracts for the Airbus A380 program have been finalized, and the company has confirmed that the new airplane will have 10,000 RFID chips. Although details have not been disclosed for the A400M military transport aircraft, Airbus also plans to implement similar RFID technology for maintenance and identification of removable parts on it, Heitmann says.

Meanwhile, Boeing and Airbus unveiled last month a joint initiative with product-life-cycle management vendor Sopheon plc and Siemens Business Services to provide an industrywide Internet portal to selected reference sources for RFID implementation. The Siemens Compliance Direct Service is designed to promote standardization around RFID use. But the partnership between Sopheon, Airbus, and Being has even larger implications. It means vendors like Sopheon are beginning to see a place for RFID in product-life-cycle management applications, which presents new possibilities of using RFID in product development, maintenance, and end-of-life recycling of aircraft and automotive parts, says Andy Michuda, Sopheon CEO.

The first flight of the 7E7 Dreamliner is expected in 2007, and the certification, delivery, and entry into service will take place in 2008. The first flight of the Airbus A380 is scheduled in May of next year.

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