How Boeing Made Item-Level RFID Fly

As retailers and consumer goods manufacturers struggle with achieving the supply-chain nirvana of complete item-level tagging, $60 billion aerospace giant Boeing has gotten item-level RFID to soar, with two thousand high-memory passive tags in every plane of an upcoming line.

Boeing's item-level RFID efforts are intriguing because of their scope, but also because of the extreme environmental and frequency hardships they must endure. Beyond the expected vibrations, altitude, air pressure and humidity impact of routinely flying that far above the clouds, the tags must be able to handle temperatures that range from 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero and they were tested to 1,200 degrees above zero, which is what the exhaust nozzle right outside a jet engine experiences. Typically, though, the units need only handle 300 degrees above zero.

The wireless unit must be nonflammable and be accessible to frequency ranges between 860 MHz and 960 MHz, so it can communicate with devices from any country that using UHF RFID readers.

They also must last about 20 years. That's a lot to ask for a tag that sells for between $15 and $20.

Today's retail item-level tags cost much less?in the 40 cent neighborhood, which is higher than the desired 5-cent-mark--but deliver much less functionality. Globally, Europe has its own item-level RFID struggles, most revolving about frequency conflicts although Marks & Spencer is plowing ahead. Retailers in China are preparing to go their own way with item-level tagging while some retail technology vendors in the U.S. are hoping to partner some of the problems away.

But Boeing decided that it couldn't use the typical RFID tag being used today?even if it's packaging was strong enough to sustain those heaven-bound hardship headaches?because so much more information needed to be stored about every critical airplane component. "It has 64,000 bits of memory as opposed to 96 bits, which is what Wal-Mart is using for their EPC global efforts, for their shipping labels," said Kenneth Porad, the program manager of the automated identification program for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Boeing's attraction to item-level RFID came from the extensive paperwork required to document the testing and history of every component of an aircrcaft. The documentation load isn't lightened by RFID, but Boeing is hoping that it will make the process much more accurate.

"In the past, people would have to write down what serial numbers are on the airplane. But parts sometimes fail. They don't perform as advertised, so they're removed and replaced and a different serial number gets put into the airframe as it's being built and moves along its line. When it gets to the end of the process after we do painting of the airplane and the final adjustments, customers get an inventory of all the serial numbers," Porad said. As those components get replaced, "it's hard to keep track of what the accurate record is. In the past, people would write them down on a piece of paper and give it to someone to type into a database. You can understand the human error potential. People can type it in wrong. Touch typists make a mistake about one in every 30 keystrokes, by the way."

With item-level tagging, Porad said Boeing is hoping to get close to 100 percent accurate information passed along when the airplane is sold.

Each component will be marked the old-fashioned way, but the addition of RFID tags should help, he said. "Pedigrees and birth records are established on these inlays. Products on airlines typically have nameplates. They had things that were stamped or barcoded, like part number and serial number and manufacturer code, things like that. What we're doing is adding to that. We're still going human readable and have barcodes on our nameplates on these parts, but laminated inside is going to be an RFID inlaw, which is the silicon chip and the antennae."

Boeing is launching this item-level effort with a new airplane to be called the 787 Dreamliner, a jet that will transport between 210 and 330 people with larger windows, more overall room and more tightly-filtered air than today's commercial jets, although using less fuel. The Dreamliner is scheduled to start shipping in 2008.

The Dreamliner, which will cost well more than $100 million, has about 4 million components. Of those 4 million parts, Boeing decided to tag 2,000 parts, mostly those that were either of "known low reliability" or more expensive parts such as "computer, landing gear and hydraulic pumps" along with the black box mechanisms. "Not fasteners, not consumables," Porad said.

One critical item-level-related cost-savings for Boeing customers is a reduction in time for mandatory maintenance checks, where flight personnel verify that, for example, life jackets and oxygen masks are where they are supposed to be. Instead of having personnel physically looking, it can be scanned in fewer than five minutes.

The RFID devices are intended to last for as many as 20 years. Beyond that is not needed, Porad said, because it's likely something will have technologically replaced RFID by then. "Technology changes and we keep abreast of it. The game may not be RFID in 15 or 20 years. We might be using Tholian webs in 10 years," he said.

Keeping the RFID units' hardware (which have no moving parts) functional for 20 years isn't the problem, Porad said, as long as they are periodically accessed by a reader. If the units are ignored for many years, however, there is the possibility for its memory to start breaking down.

"We don't need to replace the nameplate. We just need to refresh the memory every eight to ten years by accessing it with a reader," he said. "You have to make sure you activate it."

The initial technology being used by Boeing is a passive backscatter device, with an extensive maintenance history stored on it. "At a future time, we can talk about active tags with built-in censors" to monitor temperature, altitude and other physical facts, "but we're not there yet."

Given the cost of the aircraft (the primary flight computer alone costs about $400,000) and the potential cost-savings from the faster and more accurate maintenance, Porad said the investment is quite easy to justify. "The price of the transponders is negligible compared with the value it provides," he said.

But the transponder cost is also small compared with the necessary supporting hardware and software, such as the reader/writers (about $5,000 each), the programming time to modify backoffice applications to "accept this kind of data" plus major middleware enhancements and "the whole infrastructure."

The transponders themselves are being purchased by Boeing for about $10 million over the next 3-5 years from an RFID manufacturer called Intelleflex, according to Suresh Palliparambil, the Intelleflex business development director.

The additional memory is needed to deliver the kind of comprehensive aircraft readiness logs that airplane purchasers expect, including a full serialized inventory and printed wiring assemblies.

To make it work, Boeing used a high-memory UHF silicon product. "You can simply store more data," Palliparambil said. "You can store pages worth of data about this particular part."

One Boeing concern that Porad had to overcome was whether 2,000 RFID devices on the aircraft might interfere with sensitive flight equipment. To make his case, Porad said he had to do something dramatic. "I have actually populated an airplane with RFID three different times and flew them to prove that there was no electromagnetic interference and no detrimental environmental effects," he said.

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