Commercial aircraft are increasingly using composite materials. In fact, Airbus and Boeing expect to produce more than 8,000 aircraft through 2019, all of which will incorporate 10 times the composite material of previous models. As the rate of composite manufacturing increases, RFID technology (radio frequency identification) is helping to drive process efficiency and product quality. Aircraft and component manufacturers, for example, are beginning to use RFID to track composite materials and tooling through its life cycle in order to manage perishable materials and duty cycles.

Aerospace manufacturers adopted RFID technology to provide real-time location and status of physical assets in assembly and logistics operations, and to track aircraft component history in accordance with the Air Transport Association’s Part Marking Initiative – ATA Spec 2000 chapter 9. RFID is now helping aerospace and defense manufacturers tackle specific challenges inherent in composites manufacturing, such as tracking raw materials and tooling. These processes span a host of varied environmental conditions, from sub-zero temperature freezers (used to store composite material at 0 F) to high temperature autoclaves (used to cure composite material at over 400 F). Composite materials can expire or degrade if not monitored carefully through extreme temperature processes such as:

  • Out-times for uncured composite material as it moves through freezers and processing areas.
  • Duty cycles of composite tooling and other indirect materials used in autoclaves.
  • Work-in-Process status as material and lay-up kits move from freezer to autoclave to finishing process.

Traditionally, tracking assets in extreme temperatures had to be managed with barcode readers and manual processes. With the advent of ruggedized “autoclave-proof” and “freezer-proof” RFID tags that are rated for extreme temperatures and other hazardous conditions such asradiation, chemical exposure, aerospace manufacturers can now automate asset tracking from the freezer to the autoclave.

Managing Composite Materials with RFID

Composite prepreg ( commonly used for fabricating curved structural components, is a perishable material that must be transported, stored and monitored at sub-zero temperatures. Prepreg is generally rated with a freezer out-time between 350-400 hours. Once the recommended out-time has lapsed, the structural properties of the material degrade and it must be discarded.

Tracking freezer out-time in a systematic manner is time consuming and error prone, often leading to questionable material being discarded as scrap. Since the on-hand inventory of prepreg for a manufacturer can comprise close to $1 million at any time, trimming the percentage of scrap material can result in significant cost savings.