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RFID provides global visibility at Airbus; Wal-Mart targets item-level tagging

04/19/10 | John R. Johnson | email

Airbus is a leader in RFID innovation, and one of the firm's most exciting projects involves using active ultra wideband RFID technology to track work-in-progress at plants around the world. "We want a real-time view of our work-in-progress across multiple sites throughout the world," Carlo Nizam, head of value chain visibility and RFID for Airbus, told attendees at last week's RFID Live event. The system is not complete yet, but is on target to be live in June.

Airbus was just one firm to provide updates on their usage of RFID technology. The other hot news from the show centered around Wal-Mart's stepped up use of RFID to track apparel. While nobody could confirm exact details, numerous reports say the retailer wants to roll out item level tagging at 1,000 stores, starting with basic lines of clothing like socks and underwear.

"The overall content, messaging, and mix of exhibitors and attendees at RFID Live suggests that the technology, solutions, and industry are advancing on multiple levels," says Michael Liard, practice director of RFID and barcodes for ABI Research.

Nizam provided updates on several RFID initiatives, which have greatly helped Airbus at several of its European operations. In Hamburg, for example, Airbus used RFID to keep track of 800 container shipments that feed parts to assembly lines. Airbus utilizes just-in-time manufacturing, so there is typically little or no reserve stock for many parts.

"We needed to make sure each container was delivered to the right place, the first time and every time," says Nizam. By using RFID and installing 100 readers at the facility, Airbus was able to reduce the number of containers by eight percent. "That pays for the project and puts money back in our pockets as well," he says.

Airbus is also using RFID to provide visibility for tool management. The manufacturer uses more than 500,000 tools company wide, and each tool is required to be logged in and logged out. Lost tools need to be hunted down, often a laborious process. In addition, tools need to be repaired and calibrated, which has been tracked manually with a bar code system.

"Visibility is not reliable and we donít know how many times a certain tool has been used from a calibration standpoint," says Nizam. "So we repair them every four months regardless of how often they are used, and that costs lot of money. Using RFID allows us to book-in and book-out tools and to use more of a fixed time basis for repair and calibration based on a usage basis."

The solution, which helps to manage the mandated tool maintenance schedule, was initially used to tag tens of thousands of tools at an Airbus plant in the UK, and is now being duplicated at plants around the world.

As for viewing its work-in-progress across all of its plants, Airbus is adding active tags onto major component assemblies. By knowing where components are at all times, Airbus can quickly track WIP and measure delivery needs for each plant in real time.

"By having all this information we can compare it against the targets we set in our software programs," says Nizam. "Should there be too much inventory or a process violation, it is flagged in real time."

While the focus was on aerospace on the first day of the show, the subject changed quickly to apparel, with rumors swirling that Wal-Mart will start to aggressively roll out item level tagging on selected lines of apparel at up to 1,000 stores. However, Wal-Mart has not confirmed any store information.

During a panel discussion, Wal-Mart's Myron Burke indicated the retailer is moving forward strategically with apparel, but offered no specifics. According to Liard, who moderated the panel, Burke spoke of the importance of scalability early on, but did not indicate number of stores or which specific items will be tagged. "There is certainly some reserved excitement around Wal-Mart's efforts at the item level," says Liard.

The week's major announcement came from ODIN technologies and Savi. The two firms launched a highly anticipated software deal that combines passive and active RFID technologies to enhance customers' ability to track supply chain assets and transport conveyances such as containers and vehicles.

The companies have joined forces to develop the latest generation of RFID software that will exploit the full range of RFID and related auto-ID technologies. The solution is architected to benefit customers in the government sector, a stronghold of both Savi and ODIN. However, use cases exist in aerospace and defense, manufacturing, healthcare and IT services. The solution also addresses requests from clients in aerospace, defense and healthcare who have asked for a unified active-passive RFID software platform for multiple uses, ranging from tool tracking to work-in-process.

"Within the next seven years, everything that moves will be tracked wirelessly and this allows us to get one step close to that vision," says David Stephens, CEO of Savi Technology. "This broadens the way customers can track and manage assets in almost real time."

"With Savi and ODIN seamlessly integrating our respective solutions, we can bring a single off-the-shelf solution with near perfect accuracy," says Patrick Sweeney, founder of ODIN. "The fact that the technology is easy to implement and out of the box is critical."

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