Turbine Technology: Read and Weep (for Joy)

May 24, 2012
Radio frequency identification (RFID) devices for aviation maintenance

Every now and again a technology comes along that is truly labor-saving and so simple to use that the beauty of it makes you want to weep with joy. As AMTs we spend a good deal of time documenting or verifying part numbers, serial numbers, expiration dates, and other maintenance data. 

We know the challenge of reading small font numbers and letters with a flashlight and mirror while in various yoga positions. It is so very easy to transpose that 9 for a 6 and a shadow or small smear of grease will turn an S to a perfect 8. This data often creates extensive, sometimes redundant, paper files that must be stored and managed. RFID technology is good news for those who perform the endless routines of inspecting, researching, and recording critical data on components, rotables, and consumables especially in large fleets of airplanes.

RFID Integrated Solutions system

Automated identification technology (AIT) is the category of technologies used to automatically identify objects, collect data about them, and enter that data directly into computer systems (i.e. without human involvement). It can be used to identify, store, read, and integrate information in a variety of applications. We are familiar with and use many of these applications when we shop or buy consumer goods and services. RFID tags (rectangular) and contact memory button (CMB) (circular) are forms of AIT being introduced into the aviation maintenance environment. Boeing’s RFID Integrated Solutions combines RFID tags and CMBs installed on parts and components throughout an airplane. Boeing has contracted with Fujitsu to exclusively provide the hardware for the RFID Integrated Solutions program.

The passive RFID tags contain a microchip and antenna that emits radio signals when interrogated by a reader/writer using internationally recognized standard radio frequencies. A reader retrieves the data stored on an RFID tag and then passes the information in digital form to a computer system. The RFID tag is similar to a UPC bar-code but offers other significant advantages. For example, tags store data that can be read even if they are hidden from sight, have both read and write capability, and can be used to simultaneously identify and read multiple tags. The low-memory RFIDs are 512-bit devices used to store configuration, presence, security, and serviceability data. This data may include part and serial numbers, date of manufacture, expiration date, and location on the airplane. High-memory RFID tags range from 8 kilobytes to 64 kilobytes and contain the same data plus maintenance history and the ability to add as much as 500 characters of re-writable free text.High-memory contact memory buttons (CMB) range in capacity from 8 kilobytes to 4 gigabytes and are accessed by direct contact. Information written to or retrieved from the CMB could be part and serial numbers, manufacturing dates, change in configuration, identity or maintenance history, such as actions taken and conditions noted, change in custody, accountability, location, consumption, and trend data like “no fault found." 

Technicians use a wireless handheld scanner to read or type in the latest maintenance information held within the maintenance history blocks or on the scratch pad, a rewritable function that can be used to enter text or store photos or videos. All this data then becomes an electronic, rather than paper, record that travels with the airplane. 

RFID certification

Boeing and Alaska Airlines joined together in 2011 to develop, test, and validate the reliability of the RFID technology in the aviation environment. The fully integrated and comprehensive product is currently being offered and reached “service-ready” status earlier this year. Alaska Airlines is the tentative launch customer for the new program. Boeing also recently began offering a stand-alone emergency equipment management product.

According to Lois Hill, technical operations manager - RFID Integrated Solutions at Boeing Information Services and former American Airlines maintenance planner, the environmental and operational tests of RFID technology are exceeding expectations. Hill says, “Boeing installed 28 RFID tags and contact memory buttons in the harshest of test environments - APUs, engine integrated drive generators, landing gears, and other locations. They flew for 2,000 hours and were evaluated. Additionally they were put through a variety of other destructive and nondestructive tests related to component maintenance environments. All the RFIDs were functional, could be read and written to, and far exceeded specifications and expectations, showing no or very little signs of deterioration.”  

During an operational test, the oxygen generators on a B 737-800 were inspected, a job that would normally take about four hours to complete. With RFID tags affixed to the generators, “the inspector held the RFID reader at belt level and walked down the aisle from First Class past the last coach row. In one minute and 30 seconds, all the data from the oxygen generators was acquired and their status read. The same test was conducted on a B 777. It took 15 minutes to inspect all the oxygen generators,” Hill says.

It appears that the technology is performing well and meeting regulatory requirements and industry standards. Boeing has performed system interference checks. Electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) and electromagnetic interference, or (EMI), tests have been conducted and “confirmed that there will be no interference between RFID and airplane systems in any ground-based configuration,” Hill says.

The RFID technology and implementation processes are straightforward. According to Hill, “It’s a minor change, an alternate part-marking method. Boeing has the necessary FAA approvals. The technology is ISO 18000-6C compliant, meets ATA Specification 2000, Chapter 9 RFID data standards, and meets SAE Aerospace Standard AS5678."

RFID implementation

“Boeing offers five standard automated identification technology products to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of inspections, fault diagnosis, and repair. They are:

  1. Emergency equipment management
  2. Linens and tapestry management
  3. Rotables management
  4. Repairables management
  5. Airframe degradation management”

Their umbrella offering is RFID Integrated Solutions that allows operators to use non-line-of-sight RFID technology to automate inspections, change components at the appropriated time, and retrieve data at the point of use. This would certainly help maintenance operations managers and AMTs make better maintenance decisions.

Hill says, “A customer who subscribes to Boeing’s RFID Integrated Solution program will get a custom-tailored solution which will meet their specific maintenance needs. The Boeing support team would match the Integrated Solution implementation plan with the customer’s maintenance schedule and aircraft bill of work. They would get Boeing personnel at their site to help oversee hardware and software integration and implementation. This includes on-site technical and engineering oversight during airplane retrofits which can be done during overnight checks or during other routine maintenance.

Benefits of RFID based maintenance programs

Obviously AIT technology and Boeing supported customer specific maintenance programs will enhance the efficacy of customer’s stores management, work planning, and aviation maintenance programs in general. When Hill was asked if the gains in maintenance efficiency could result in the need for fewer AMTs, she said, “Certainly not.”

The RFID maintenance programs will add capacity. In other words it will free up AMTs from the mundane, repetitive tasks to use their higher order skills like trouble shooting, problem solving, and decision making. This will help their companies improve their bottom line and become more competitive and grow their business. These RFID technology-based maintenance programs will also address some of the “Human Factors Dirty Dozen” by improving communication and accurate maintenance data entry and component tracking.

Truth be told, it will be a boon to those of us that are getting a bit creaky in the joints, are wearing bifocals, or have challenges with our short-term memory. Weep, groan and creak no more - RFID technology is on the way and it is our friend.

Field Editor Charles Chandler has a Masters of Science Degree in Adult and Occupational Education with a major in Human Resources Development. He began his aviation career as a junior mechanic for American Airlines and retired after 27 years of service. After leaving American he held both line and staff positions in six other major companies. His positions with those companies included curriculum development specialist, manager and director for organizational development, management and leadership development, and maintenance training operations departments.