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Wednesday, October 26, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Boeing wants suppliers on board with tags

Seattle Times business reporter

Boeing, in a move similar to Wal-Mart's mandate for the retail industry, is requiring its suppliers to deliver parts equipped with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, the tiny sensors that store and transmit data wirelessly.

Boeing's mandate has the potential to move the nascent RFID industry forward, but it could be tough to implement within the aerospace company's 12-month deadline.

Boeing executives met with technology providers and industry partners Tuesday to discuss details of the plan. Boeing is working with a coalition of companies to test the tags and develop standards.

Boeing is promising airline customers it will have RFID-enabled parts aboard the 787, its next-generation jet scheduled for delivery in 2008.

That means suppliers will need to deliver their RFID-tagged parts, tested and certified, to Boeing in about 12 months. Boeing is aiming to have RFID tags on at least 1,750 Dreamliner parts, focusing on items that are routinely inspected and replaced at the gate.

The trouble is, the RFID chip Boeing wants hasn't been developed. Some participants expressed skepticism that the work could be done in time.

"This is not the 20-cent tag that Wal-Mart is asking for that's disposable," said Kenneth Porad, program manager of the automated identification program at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Instead, the aerospace-grade tag will contain a 64-kilobyte chip that contains information such as the part's serial number, manufacturer, country of origin and repair history. For some parts, a 1-kilobyte chip will suffice, Porad said.

Information on RFID chips can be read by a handheld device and sent to a central database.

Using a reader to automatically collect the data could save time and cut down on human error, said Judy Harrison, regulatory compliance analyst at Delta Air Lines. Delta is one of the companies testing the tags.

As a plane sits on the tarmac, Boeing envisions, a worker with a handheld scanner could walk down the aisle and quickly assess .

Tracking parts electronically could help airlines analyze maintenance programs, Harrison said.

But the technology has limitations, Harrison said. Among them:

• Exposed to hot surfaces, the tag's adhesive bubbled up underneath it.

• Boeing requires the tags to be mounted with metal, but metal interferes with the reading of data.

• Putting a layer of material between metal and the tag could solve the problem, but it could add a significant amount of weight.

The Federal Aviation Administration has approved the use of so-called passive RFID tags on airplanes, but it may require further testing of parts if tags change the weight or configuration of parts, FAA engineering project manager John Dimtroff said.

Besides technical questions, suppliers are considering the investment needed to develop the tags.

Suppliers will bear the initial cost of complying with the mandate, Porad said, conceding that Boeing is facing some resistance from among its 2,500 parts makers.

Boeing and Airbus plan to use RFID on new aircraft, driving demand for about 2 million RFID tags a year, he said. Boeing predicts the tags could end up costing about $15 each.

Many businesses may not be able to make the necessary investment to develop the chip that Boeing wants.

"It's definitely doable," said Rene Martinez, chief technologist with Intermec, the Everett-based company that holds key RFID patents and makes RFID tags and readers. "It's a question of which manufacturers want to step up to the plate and whether it makes sense from a business perspective."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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