Boeing Makes Item-Level RFID Fly

As retailers and manufacturers struggle with achieving complete item-level tagging, aerospace giant Boeing has put 2,000 high-memory passive RFID tags in planes of an upcoming line.

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 2,000 high-memory passive tags in every plane of an upcoming line.

Boeings 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 860MHz and 960MHz, so it can communicate with devices from any country that is using UHF RFID readers.

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

Todays 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 around 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 United States are hoping to partner some of the problems away.

But Boeing decided that it couldnt use the typical RFID tag being used today—even if its 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.

Boeings attraction to item-level RFID came from the extensive paperwork required to document the testing and history of all components of an aircraft. The documentation load isnt 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," Porad said.

"They dont perform as advertised, so theyre removed and replaced and a different serial number gets put into the airframe as its 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."

As those components get replaced, "its 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 in wrong. Touch typists make a mistake about one in every 30 keystrokes, by the way," Porad said.

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," Porad said.

"What were doing is adding to that. Were 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 todays commercial jets, although using less fuel.

The Dreamliner is scheduled to start shipping in 2008.

Next Page: How Boeing decided which parts would be tagged.