RFID guides manufacturer to timely landings
July 01, 2014 - MMH Editorial
Manufacturing composite parts requires a process of cutting, forming and curing advanced composite materials rather than using metal components. ATK, a Clearfield, Utah-based manufacturer of composite airframe and engine components, sought to track the process of handling perishable materials at high volumes. By installing an RFID system, the company gained visibility into material location, remaining usable life and the dynamic condition of each item as it moves through processes.
With customers like Airbus, General Electric and Rolls-Royce, the company transports, stores and monitors perishable materials at subzero temperatures. Typically the initial usable life is approximately 700 hours, and if composite material spends significant time out of freezers it must be discarded.
Passive RFID tags (OATSystems, a division of Checkpoint Systems, oatsystems.com) are now affixed to materials used to fabricate structural components, and an RFID scanner reads those tags as they move in and out of storage freezers. The tags are read through storage, layup and curing processes to ensure the material is “fresh” and moved efficiently. The system’s software tracks times for each unique item.
In addition, ATK is tagging the tooling on which products are formed and cured in autoclave ovens at high temperatures and pressure. Because each tool is unique to the part or component being fabricated, the company has a record of when each specific kind of component has been formed, bagged, cured and ready for the final manufacturing processes before shipping.
According to Jim Morgan, program manager of ATK Space PMO, this enables ATK to meet stringent requirements from customers. “We can enhance our efficiency when we know where tools and materials are, and we don’t need operators to spend time looking for either of them,” he says. “In addition, the system helps us detect expired material before it can be used. If material has expired, there is an indication on the visual monitor in the work cells.”
Morgan said that RFID has been a critical asset that enabled it to meet aggressive delivery targets. Commercial aircraft manufacturing is experiencing a period of rapid growth in the use of composite materials to improve fuel efficiency. ATK is now able to produce up to 25 miles of composite components per month. Without the ability to automate the tracking of these innovative manufacturing processes, Morgan said, it would be difficult to deliver on commercial contracts, which are set for significant production rate increases in coming years.
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