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Case Studies

U.S. Coast Guard – The Safest Aircraft in the Sky

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U.S. Coast GuardBeyond the banks of the Albemarle Sound, over the deep waters of the Atlantic, somewhere west of Bermuda, a HH-60 Jayhawk surges through the midnight sky. By day, the black beak and crimson stripe and tail of the medium-range recovery helicopter contrasts boldly with its white body, and darting above the navy waters of the ocean at 180 knots, a spectator sees only a blur of red, white and blue – the colors of the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and the country it serves. The two pilots spot their objective after moments of searching: a capsized yacht that drifted too far into the storm. Behind the cockpit, the rescue swimmer dives into the cold depths as the hoist operator prepares the lift. The victims are hauled to safety, one by one. Once all are aboard and secure, the Jayhawk distances itself from the ocean and ascends once more into the clouded night sky.

For the USCG, successes such as these rely on years of disciplined training, a dedication and drive toward superior teamwork, and a deep respect for the weather and the water. However, beyond the aptitude of the crew, a successful mission depends upon safe, reliable aircraft parts.

Launching Innovation

For decades, black market and counterfeit parts have been circulated into the aircraft industry supply chain. Without the rigorous standards applied to genuine assets, these parts present severe safety risks. In response to this problem, the Department of Defense (DoD) issued the Unique Identification (UID) program, which stipulates that two-dimensional (2D) data matrix bar codes must be placed on all DoD mission-critical items by 2010.

Since 1996, the USCG ARSC in Elizabeth City had been tracking its parts with traditional bar coding. However, the air station was using duplicated serial numbers, many bar codes were only intended for human readability, and many parts did not have serial numbers. To resolve these issues, the safe marking of legacy parts in the field was the single most pressing challenge related to the implementation of the ARSC’s part tracking program. A new mobile system would help change everything. To bring a marking toolset into one package, the USCG sought the help of Intermec Technologies, the leader in asset tracking and UID technology.

“We chose Intermec because of the knowledge and capability that the company offered,” Boyce said. “Intermec provided the most opportunity and value for the future; they were willing to work with us until it was right.”

Marker on Wheels

Over the course of several months, during three different test phases, Intermec provided possible solutions, and the USCG ARSC suggested improvements. Together, the agencies tested more that 1,000 parts and 1,000 labels using a variety of marking methods. For each of these, they evaluated safety, viability and accessibility.

“The resulting solution was the Intermec Mobile Marking System,” said Intermec UID Program Manager Don Roxby. “It’s a complete part marking system, equipped with tools that can safely mark, verify and report 98 percent of all warehouse and depot parts.”

The Intermec Mobile Marking System provided the USCG with the maneuverability to reach parts in the field. The self-contained system was built on a welded steel frame, with fitted side handles and eight pneumatic wheels. Equipped with a CO2 laser to apply non-intrusive direct-part marks and materials for printing labels and creating data plates, the system could mark almost every part. Boyce’s team was able to adapt to the system quickly because the Intermec on-board rugged, industrial computer featured a user-friendly, menu-driven marking selection process. Intermec handheld optical character recognition (OCR) reader and bar code readers provided additional versatility for scanning items. The system even allowed for a streamlined workflow with software that could automatically synchronize data with a UID Registry and WAWF system over a wireless connection.

The Intermec Mobile Marking System provides the ability to create 2D bar codes and RFID smart chips. For its 2D bar coding, the USCG used a data matrix developed by the National Association of Space Aviation (NASA).

Return on Investment: $6 Million Plan

Now one year into the project, the USCG identifies multiple benefits from the system, not least of which are heightened parts safety. After all, the system will save lives.

“Right now, the U.S. Coast Guard is leading all of aviation with this technology,” Boyce said. “This is one of the most up-and-coming technologies out there. It’s the safest technology that’s being developed for aircrafts today.”

Beyond the benefits of having the safest aircrafts in the sky, Boyce identifies increased efficiency in inventory control, maintenance and logistics operations. Using the new marker, USCG ARSC personnel have been able to decrease marking times. The new marker has also eliminated input errors. Prior to implementation, inputting data would result in an average of one error for every 300 entries. Now that the system is automated, no input errors exist.

“The production marking program initiated at the ARSC has drastically improved operational efficiency,” Boyce said. “The system has also been an aid by providing solid evidence used in the prosecution and conviction of suppliers providing substandard and counterfeit parts.”

Before the new system, every data inaccuracy would cost the USCG at least 40 labor hours, in which personnel would have to determine what had caused the inaccuracy, where the associated part was supposed to be and where it actually was. Now that the system houses more in-depth tracking records, personnel can quickly verify inaccurate data. Converted to costs, studies done by the USCG indicate that the marking program will yield an estimated annual savings of $598,000, which equates to $5.98 million over the next 10 years.

Eyes to the Sky

For now, the USCG is using the Intermec Mobile Marking System to mark, verify and report parts specific to the HH-60 Jayhawk, but in the future, the ARSC will begin using the equipment to address the needs of all its legacy parts. Boyce believes that the implications of this project extend beyond the mission-critical needs of the USCG, and even beyond the needs of the DoD. He advocates for the use of complete marking solutions for every aircraft in the sky.

“The future of this is not just for us,” Boyce said. “This is going to make all of aviation safer – not just the Coast Guard, not just the Department of Defense, but the commercial industry too. It’s not just about accountability; it’s about prevention. This should be an enhancement that goes across all of aviation.”