Delta to test RFID for parts tracking

Delta Air Lines plans to test the use of radio frequency identification tags to track engine parts next month in partnership with The Boeing Co., according to Marty Kansinger, Delta's general manager for materiel services.

Atlanta-based Delta has already conducted two tests of RFID technology to track bags and plans to decide by year's end whether to deploy the technology systemwide, said airline spokesman Reid Davis.

The Delta test dovetails with plans by two rival commercial aircraft manufacturers, Chicago-based Boeing and France-based Airbus SAS to jointly develop RFID standards for the aviation industry. Boeing and Airbus will host the first of three Global Aviation RFID Forums in Atlanta next week, with similar meetings planned for Hong Kong and Munich later this summer.

Kenneth Porad, program manager for Boeing's automated identification program, said his company and Airbus have decided to speak "with a single voice" when it comes to developing systems and standards for using RFID labels to track aircraft parts. Porad said the two companies use a common supplier base for parts and systems, ranging from landing gear to flight computers, with the companies having "70 percent common suppliers."

Porad said the development of joint RFID standards would help airline customers reduce costs by providing them with smart RFID tags to better manage and even reduce parts inventories -- which can amount to $1 billion for a single carrier.

That's about the value of Delta's parts inventory, said Kansinger, noting that "improvement in inventory accuracy is very important to us" because it can save the airline money. Delta currently tracks about a half-million parts.

Parts tracking depends on the quality of data entry, a system that today can begin with a mechanic taking notes on a clipboard about part replacements. Delta is conducting its RFID test to see if the tags can help speed up and improve the accuracy of that data entry while minimizing user input. During the test, which will run through the end of the year, Delta said, it will use RFID technology and "smart bins" at a repair facility to track the movement of engine parts.

The test will also be used to determine how well RFID tags and labels stand up to engine temperatures as high as 500 degrees. Though such a test has never been done before, Kansinger said the tag supplier, which he didn't identify, claims that the tags can withstand such temperatures. Delta plans to label parts in six to eight engines used on Boeing 757 aircraft.

Porad emphasized that the tags planned for the commercial aviation industry are smarter than those used in the retail supply chain by companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and its suppliers. Boeing uses tags that can store up to 10,000 bits of data, while those used in the retail supply chain can store only 256 bits of data. That's because Boeing and its customers need to store more information, including long serial numbers, detailed parts information and repair histories.

Boeing conducted a 90-day test of RFID smart labels to track parts on an MD-10 freighter used by FedEx Corp. last year. That test showed that tags operating in the 13.56-MHz frequency work in the metal environment of an aircraft and meet Federal Aviation Administration electromagnetic interference mandates, Porad said. Memphis-based FedEx will detail the results of that test at the conference; Porad said he expects the FAA to soon approve use of 13.56-MHz tags on commercial aircraft.

FedEx officials couldn't be reached for comment.

From a global perspective, 13.56-MHz tags are ideal, Porad said, since that frequency is approved for use worldwide -- although its practicality is somewhat limited by a short, 1-yard range. Boeing plans to conduct future tests, including the one with Delta, using tags that operate at 915-MHz and have a read range of roughly 60 feet. But those tags can't be used in Europe.

Porad said Boeing and the Air Transport Association are working to get the 915-MHz frequency approved for worldwide use.

There's another issue, according to Matt Ream, senior manager for RFID systems at Vernon Hills, Ill.-based Zebra Technologies Corp., which supplied the RFID smart labels for the Boeing/FedEx test. While today's 915-MHz tags can be read from farther away, they can store only 256 bits of data because they were developed for retail use. If demand warrants, chip manufacturers such as Infineon Technologies AG in Munich could probably meet the requirements for additional storage, Ream said.

Infineon supplied the RFID chips used in the Boeing/FedEx test.

RFID smart-label suppliers have pegged the cost of each individual label at about $2, "which is not much of a discriminator on a $400,000 end item like a flight-control computer," Porad said. Ream said Zebra could probably go less than $2 per label "as the cost of chips are coming down."

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