Planes, Trains, Automobiles & RFID

Posted by Ken Lynch on Wed, Sep 01, 2010 @ 10:26 AM

Transportation manufacturing industry relies more and more on RFID

Planes, Trains, AutomobileBased upon the uses of radio frequency identification and sensing (RFIDS) we’ve explored during our 100 Uses of RFID program so far, such as asset tracking and automobile telematics, you have to wonder if RFID would have helped Neal Page get home to Chicago any faster in Planes, Trains & Automobiles.  (OK, you may not think of this, but we do since we love this space so much.)

If the car rental company that lost Neal’s reserved car in St. Louis had used RFID to track its fleet, would the car have been there, sparing him the expletive-laden tirade and allowing him to get home?  Would the car that Del Griffith successfully rented have had sensors that would have detected Del’s lit cigarette, keeping it from becoming a charred convertible?  Would the train that broke down in St. Louis been in better condition if RFID helped ensure a higher quality manufacturing process to begin with?

Of course, this classic movie wouldn’t have been as funny or successful if these scenarios played out, but we ask because these are all ways that RFID is being used by the transportation manufacturing industry.  Today, we continue the 100 Days of RFID by kicking-off a three-part series on this market.


Airplane manufacturers use RFID heavily in managing its supply chain.  Given the long, complex manufacturing time for a commercial jet, with millions of parts, Boeing and Airbus have used RFID for parts tracking and inventory control for over six years.  That use is now evolving from supply chains and assembly plans to the tracking of parts onboard the aircraft in use by airline fleets.

Boeing is using RFID tags on its new 787 Dreamliner, which will see first shipments in use by the end of this year.  The Dreamliner has tags affixed on its “maintenance-significant parts,” while the Airbus A350 will uses RFID on 1,500 of its parts for what the industry refers to as “airborne RFID.”

The use of RFID tags on these parts gives airlines the ability to track and monitor avionics and other parts after they've been installed on the aircraft. Information gleaned from the tags will support aircraft configuration management and line maintenance, repair shop optimization and life-limited parts monitoring. Consequently, the fast maintenance turnaround facilitated by RFID can translate into improved on-time performance.


In the train market, a new and very interesting application of RFID is emerging.  Bombadier, which many people know as the manufacturer of Leer jets, also is the number one manufacturer of passenger rail equipment.  Bombardier also runs a $1 billion services business that operates and maintains 8,000 rail vehicles under contract around the world, including the MBTA commuter rail service here in Boston.  To help it grow its existing business in this area, the company is developing a new set of products and services leveraging RFID.

For example, the track on which trains run, must be maintained and visually inspected for defects every 2-3 days.  For the most part, this inspection is done manually by transit workers walking along the track looking for problems, putting them in harm’s way.  As a result, it saw an opportunity for a new RFID-based system called TrackSafe. With the system, track workers wear vests containing RFID tags that automatically link to readers installed approximately every 500 feet along the track.  The readers are connected to a warning light and speaker cluster designed to activate whenever a train approached a construction or maintenance area. Train conductors, alerted to the workers' presence, would instantly know that it was time to slow down and proceed with caution, while workers would be alerted to oncoming trains.

A challenge it had when offering the system, which is not uncommon to RFID applications in general, is the objection among track workers that they would be monitored for the wrong reasons.  To overcome this challenge, Bombardier applied the concept of “sketching the user experience” created by Microsoft product visionary Bill Buxton.  This involves understanding human-computer interaction in order to design technology-driven products that are accepted and effectively used.


RFID in the automobile industry has seen several applications going back to the early days of key fobs, to more recently the integration in the factory, for tracking parts containers across far-flung supply chains and for yard management in vehicle processing centers.

But getting back to our Planes, Trains & Automobiles movie reference, based upon very recent increases in the use of RFID by car rental companies, the days of Neal Page’s lost car may be coming to an end.   Thanks to two advances in RFID technologies, rental companies now can tag entire fleets and use RFID to better manage them from an inventory and security perspective. 

  1. Smart labels – Low-cost RFID tags embedded in windshield stickers can be quickly and cost effectively affixed to rental cars.
  2. UHF readers – The improved read range and performance of today’s UHF readers allow rental cars to be read as they are being driven off the lots, relaying the information instantly to software systems tracking the availability of vehicles.

All of this helps the rental operation streamline its inventory management, improve employee accountability and reduce labor and equipment – not to mention spare its rental agents from expletive-laden tirades from customers!

Tags: RFID, Asset Tracking, Airplane Parts Tracking, Telematics

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