Boeing is on track to issue a set of radio frequency identification specifications to its suppliers sometime during the first half of next year.
The specifications will spell out Boeing's technical standards relating to issues such as the frequency, memory capacity and size of RFID tags and labels. Suppliers that ship parts to Boeing will eventually need to label their components with RFID tags that meet the specifications.
However, there will be no mandate from Boeing requiring suppliers to implement RFID tagging right away, said Daryl Remily, deputy programme manager of the company's Auto-ID programme.
Boeing also has not decided which of the thousands of parts that go into making an aircraft it wants to be tagged first, Remily said. That decision will be based on a study of several factors, including the cost of a part, its importance to aircraft operations and how easy it is to repair, he said.
Boeing's plan to RFID-enable its supply chain echoes moves being made by companies such as Wal-Mart Stores and Airbus SAS, Boeing's European aircraft rival. In fact, Boeing and Airbus are working together to promote common standards for the use of RFID within the aviation industry.
One issue that still needs to be addressed is whether suppliers will get any tangible paybacks from their RFID investments. "A lot of people are rushing into RFID without a clear idea of what their business case is," said Jeff Woods, an analyst at Gartner.
The sheer size and market presence of Boeing will allow it to drive standards and adoption of RFID in the aerospace industry - just as Wal-Mart is doing in the retail sector, said Michael Liard, an analyst at Venture Development. "It is largely the big guys in the block that are leading the charge" towards smart labels, he said.
But companies in the aerospace and defence industries could benefit from the more efficient marking and tracking of parts that RFID technology makes possible, Woods said.
"The trick is to make sure that everyone benefits from it, including the suppliers," he said.
Boeing expects the use of RFID tags to lower its receiving costs, improve its ability to track parts and reduce the risk that unapproved components will find their way into planes, according to Remily.
Potential benefits for suppliers include lower inventory costs as well as improved configuration control and more detailed repair histories, he said.
Boeing and Airbus plan to use The Air Transport Association of America's Spec 2000 e-business standard for specifying how individual RFID labels need to be constructed using parts numbers, serial numbers and manufacturers' codes, Remily said.
Boeing is also carrying out a series of tests to verify the usability of RFID tags on commercial airplanes.
Earlier this year, it completed a 90-day evaluation of 13.56-MHz passive RFID labels that were affixed to different parts of an MD-10 freight airliner owned by FedEx.
The 10kbit labels were tested for their potential to create electromagnetic interference, as well as for adhesiveness, readability of data and the ability to write data into them.
According to Remily, the labels showed no detrimental environmental effects and didn't cause any electromagnetic problems during the test.
In the next few weeks, similar tests will be conducted on RFID tags that will be stuck to the engine cowling on six Boeing 757 aircraft belonging to Delta Air Lines.
Boeing is also moving forward with tests of 915-MHz ultra-high-frequency RFID tags with both Delta and FedEx.
Jaikumar Vijayan writes for Computerworld