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Old Meets New – ATA Group Assembles in DC - Tego
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Old Meets New – ATA Group Assembles in DC

I was in DC a few weeks ago for a standards meeting. The RFID on Parts technical team has been putting the finishing touches on the latest version of Spec 2000 Ch9-5, so I was there for three days trying to get the standard ready for release.

At this stage in the process there’s always a mind-numbing amount of minutia to work on, but it has to get done. Just to provide some flavor, there was quite a bit of haggling over the length of the PNO field (spoiler alert: it will be increased from 15 to 32 bits).  We decided that the unit of measure code need not be restricted to just pounds and kilograms (fathoms anyone?).  And in the Birth Record on Multi-Record tags, PNR is now… wait for it… forbidden.  I know, I know, this stuff can be pretty tedious.

A great way to step away from these low level details was a stop at the Old Ebbitt Grill.  The Ebbitt has been around since 1856 and is steeped in so much history that it’s always been one of my favorite watering holes in DC.  The place even has a great urban legend that it’s where British generals gathered to watch the White House burn during the War of 1812.  Did I mention Ebbitt’s was founded in 1856?  Maybe we’ll just keep that detail to ourselves.  In any case, sitting at the back bar with a colleague was a great opportunity to reflect on all the presidents and senators, lobbyists and journalists that had sat in those very same seats, and a great way to rise above the bits and bytes that had been the focus of the day.

One anecdote that went largely unnoticed during the meeting was mentioned by one of the airline representatives. “Let’s not do anything to undermine the importance of the Birth Record,” he said.  “Simply knowing exactly what part we’re looking at is usually our biggest challenge and what we spend way too much time on.  It’s exactly what RFID can help us with, so everyone needs to work hard to make sure the Birth Record data is present and accurate.”

On the surface it doesn’t sound like it should be so difficult, but consider this, which was also described at the meeting: the airlines all have their own numbering system.  They basically replace the OEM data with their own CAGE code and numbering system.  The link between these two numbers is supposed to be maintained in their databases, but it’s not always there and not always complete.

Take a moment to hover over that last paragraph for a moment.  The airlines have their own numbering system.  So now, what are highly trained mechanics, who are being paid to maintain critical aircraft components, spending most of their time doing? Accurately discovering the CAGE code, part number and serial number for the item that’s in front of them.

It’s no coincidence that this has been a central theme of all the Airbus keynote addresses that have become so familiar at the various RFID conferences.  The right data, in the right place, at the right time all starts with knowing what part you have in your hand.  And that knowledge does not come from an ID number on a nameplate that has to be matched up with databases that are possibly scattered across enterprises and possibly inaccessible.  Those scattered inaccessible databases are exactly the problem we are solving by putting the data on the tag.  But it has to be the right data.

So here we have two seemingly disjointed comments made hours apart during a data formatting discussion, and yet those comments tell the whole story.  One guy says “just give me a Birth Record I can rely on” and the other says “did you know airlines have their own numbering systems?”.  This makes it clear there’s a problem to be solved, a very significant industry-wide problem.  A problem that can be solved using RFID, along with a standard that is up to the task.  The right data, in the right place, at the right time.  Once the standard is ready, all the pieces will be in place to make that a reality.

It’s good to know that a trip to a historic location like the Old Ebbitt Grill can help with getting one’s head out of the details long enough to find these kinds of insights.  The high-level insights are badly needed right now because since that meeting in DC, where we were working on the “finishing touches,” a much bigger issue has surfaced.  One which has delayed the release of the standard we all thought was ready to go.  It’s an old issue actually; one that I’ve written about previously, but one that needs to be revisited.  That topic certainly deserves a dedicated post, but as a precursor I’ll leave you with one question: given all this emphasis on the importance of reliable Birth Record data, why would anyone want to allow the Birth Record to remain unlocked?

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