RFID Flies High With Airplane Makers

Boeing and Airbus will require suppliers to tag aircraft and engine parts

Tony Kontzer, Contributor

June 11, 2004

3 Min Read

Boeing Co. and Airbus S.A.S, the world's largest airplane makers, plan to require more than 2,000 of their suppliers to begin tagging aircraft and engine parts with radio-frequency identification technology by this time next year.

Speaking at an industry conference in Atlanta last week, executives from the rival companies said cooperating on requirements for those suppliers was the only way to ensure they can cut costly errors and delays from their manufacturing processes. The RFID tags, which emit high-frequency signals that remote readers can detect, are being tested by companies from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to Johnson Controls Inc. to track goods and parts more efficiently.

To cut costly errors in manufacturing, airplane makers want suppliers to use RFID.

"We really need to stand up and change some processes to make our industry competitive," said Airbus VP Pierre Steffen at the conference. Seventy percent of the purchase orders that Airbus receives from its customers contain incorrect pricing data and part numbers. If parts on Airbus planes contained RFID tags, they could be scanned to generate accurate replacement orders. Using RFID to track parts could save Airbus $400 million a year, Steffen said.

Tagging airplane parts will provide Boeing customers with more reliable information than what mechanics enter manually and prevent unapproved parts from finding their way into finished products, a problem that costs Boeing customers $100 million a year in Federal Aviation Administration fines and replacement time, says Kenneth Porad, a manager for RFID at Boeing. Bob Parker, an analyst at consulting firm AMR Research, says airline mechanics can spend 70% of their time locating parts.

Industry standards already are taking shape. The Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, recently added an RFID standard to its specifications for the aviation parts industry. The FAA by year's end plans to certify some RFID tags for plane parts.

Will suppliers absorb the cost of the new requirements? Rick Finale, VP of engineering and business development for Gables Engineering, which supplies Boeing with electronic navigation and communications systems, says that if the cost is manageable--say, $2 to install and program each tag--he plans to comply.

Boeing and Airbus will need suppliers' buy-in, since they plan to incorporate RFID tagging into the manufacturing processes for their next-generation aircraft. Boeing's 7E7 Dreamliner, a midrange jet, is due in 2008. Airbus plans to deliver its first A380 superjumbo by late '07. Both companies say they'll issue their requirements in a year, then phase in tagging by suppliers over six months.

Meanwhile, airlines are running ground and air tests on the technology. Boeing has worked with customers FedEx Corp. and Delta Air Lines Inc. on pilot-test deployments, while Airbus has completed an in-flight test with an unspecified German carrier and has begun using RFID to track its maintenance tools. FedEx last week said a three-month test of labeling 40 parts with 13.56-MHz tags went without a hitch. Next month, Boeing and FedEx will begin a test with higher-frequency 915-MHz tags. The increased frequency lets the tags be read from farther away.

Next month, Delta plans to begin an effort with Boeing in which 30 engine parts on six to eight 757s will be tagged. An inventory-tracking trial also is on tap. Delta is using RFID in other areas as well; in May, it completed its second test of RFID tags on baggage moving between Atlanta and Jacksonville, Fla.

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