Around the world the scene is repeated over and over again. In cavernous aircraft hangars handsomely paid aircraft mechanics are spending considerable portions of their shifts leafing through log books, rifling through bins, and on the phone. These highly trained workers are wasting their time by using an antiquated, inaccurate, and inefficient way of locating the right part for the A340 you may be flying across the ocean tomorrow morning. In fact, according to a report from AMR Research, aircraft mechanics spend up to 70% of their time simply locating the correct spare parts for the job.
Most airlines worldwide currently use hand-written maintenance logs as their initial record-keeping inputs. Mistakes are made, both in the initial recording of information and in transcription of the written material into electronic records. Boeing’s internal studies on the accuracy of these transcriptions show that 1 in every 30 keystrokes is made in error.
Such poor quality information slows down maintenance operations and costs money throughout the aircraft parts supply chain. Airbus estimates that 70% of the purchase orders that the firm receives for replacement parts from air carriers and servicing firms have incorrect part information. According to Airbus’ Vice President Pierre Steffan, this inaccuracy costs his firm approximately $400 million annually. Such inaccuracies allow for counterfeit and unapproved parts to make their way onto aircraft. Not only does this potentially compromise passenger safety, but it also costs U.S. airlines on the bottom-line. This is because the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) issues well-over $100 million in fines each year to carriers who are found to make use of such non-airworthy replacement parts.
For an industry hemorrhaging money, the world’s air carriers collectively warehouse an estimated $45 billion in spare parts. Startlingly, much of this stock is not catalogued and is indeed unnecessary. Airlines often find that that even with these bounteous stockpiles, the man under the fuselage of an A320 or 737 will be unable to find the right part for the job at the right time in the right location.
When that flight you were to be on from LAX to Orlando had to be cancelled due to a maintenance problem, your hours of inconvenience buying overpriced food and adult beverages likely transpired for lack of the right valve, hose, or nut for the job being available on the tarmac.
Advances in efficiency, and safety dictate that airline maintenance operations will be reinvented over the next few years. To their credit, the oligarchs of the commercial aircraft industry – Boeing and Airbus – are cooperating to issue a joint standard for the tagging of aircraft parts, to be finalized early in 2005. These two industry leaders are facing a simple fact – without a strong customer base to purchase their mega-million dollar units, their own viability would invariably be questionable over the long-term. Thus, their initiative is a “win-win” for all involved – the manufacturers, the airlines, aircraft service firms, and most of all, the traveling public.
As opposed to being a true Wal-Mart-style “mandate,” Boeing and Airbus are simply developing joint standards that they will utilize for their operations. Both firms are building upon their experience using RFID tagging for proprietary tools and equipment and internal parts operations that have been ongoing for five years or more. They are also educating their suppliers and customers about automatic identification technologies and their potential applications and benefits. As such, they have taken a proactive, collaborative approach with their stakeholders, jointly sponsoring three Global Aviation RFID Forums in Atlanta, Hong Kong, and Munich, in an effort to exchange information with stakeholders regarding their automatic identification initiatives and solicit input before the directives are finalized in early 2005.
Airbus and Boeing have agreed to use the Air Transport Association’s (ATA) SPEC2000 e-business specification as the basis for their directive, as this trade group’s standard has been modified to include guidelines for automatic identification and data capture. SPEC2000 spells out how individual RFID tags need to be constructed, using parts numbers, serial numbers and manufacturers’ codes. The ATA standard specifies the use of ISO 15693 passive, read-write tags, operating at 13.56-MHz. It is likely that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other civil aviation authorities in Europe and Asia will follow-on with their own guidelines, allowing for RFID tagging on passenger aircraft in 2005.
The one area in which Airbus and Boeing seem to be diverging is in deciding which of the tens of thousands of parts on an aircraft will be tagged. According to Daryl Remily, deputy program manager for Boeing’s Auto-ID program, the company’s decisions in this area will be based on several factors, including:
- the cost of a part,
- a part’s criticality in aircraft operations, and
- the relative ease of a part’s repair and/or replacement.
The operational efficiencies that Boeing believes can be brought about through greater automation and factory coordination, with RFID part tracking playing a key role, will be dramatic. According to Boeing’s Kenneth Porad, the company’s new 7E7 will have 6 million unique parts, with far more of the assembly operations being performed by suppliers, rather than inside Boeing’s mammoth 4-wall assembly operations. In fact, fully 35% of plane will be built in Japan. According to Porad, Boeing will be able to reduce its on-site assembly time for each aircraft from the 4-6 weeks it commonly takes today for aircraft such as the 737 and 777 to just 72 hours for the 7E7 when it begins full-scale production in 2008. Boeing’s Porad acknowledged at the RFID Executive Forum this fall that at some point in the future, RFID-enabled labels would be a contracting requirement on new Boeing aircraft, including the 7E7.
Airbus’ approach is more compressed. According to Jen Heitmann, a Senior Manager for the consortium, each of Airbus’ new mammoth jumbo jets, the A380, will have in the neighborhood of 10,000 tags flying on board. Airbus believes that because of the high metal content of aircraft, plastic and other composite parts in the cabin will be easier to tag. For example, the firm plans to place passive labels on passenger seats and life vests. With these in place, a flight attendant or maintenance person could sweep down the aisles of the plane with a hand-held reader to verify that each seat had the required life jacket in place. Airbus is also looking to tag removable parts and critical parts that have short life-cycles, such as the planes brakes, which typically must be overhauled after every 1,000 landings. Airbus will also employ similar tagging in its A400 military transport and the planned A350 passenger jet.
Computerworld recently praised Airbus and Boeing’s collaboration for speaking “with a single voice” on RFID. One thing is clear, as RFID parts tracking is introduced for both new aircraft production and maintenance on legacy aircraft, commercial airliners will be one of the smartest places on – or above – the earth.