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Boeing: Air Force One Gets a Makeover with the Help of Wireless Networking

At the Boeing Modification Center, a huge, sprawling facility which occupies nearly 16 million square feet in Wichita, Kan., giant 747 passenger aircraft are positioned into a football field-sized hanger where workers rip out their insides until there's nothing left except an empty shell, and 90 days later they emerge as sleek cargo-hauling aircraft.

Boeing also performs regularly scheduled maintenance and diagnosis on one of the world's most famous aircraft; the President's Air Force One 747, the pride of the Boeing fleet. Both jobs demand the highest level of expertise. In this age of modern air flight, an aircraft such as the 747 has hundreds of thousands of parts from wing assemblies to fasteners. Each part plays a critical role in assuring the crafts performance.

Scaffolding is built cocoon-like right around the 747 when it's wheeled in for refurbishing. Technicians and engineers, armed with portable and laptop computers, get right into the belly of the plan, tear out the old electrical system then install a new one consisting of miles of cables and connections. The final step is the replacement of rollers, ribs and a new floor. Printers, too, sit right up on the scaffolding.

The computer is an essential tool for those workers and is used to access an encyclopedia of schematics, blue prints, instructions, drawings, records, service bulletins and analysis. A wireless local area network extends access to that information, which resides in mainframes in Wichita and at Boeing Seattle, directly to the point of activity at the aircraft.

It's a simple process: mobile workers request information from anywhere in the hanger including the inside of the aircraft and from any location on the grounds; a query from their laptop PC is routed from over a wireless LAN device which simply plugs into the computer's serial port and turns the command into a radio signal. The signal is then picked up by an antenna and sent through an access point, traveling through an Ethernet connection and then over a dedicated T1 line to either the Boeing mainframe in Wichita or Seattle.

The query and the subsequent response back through to the wireless network takes less than a second. Graphical, data-intensive schematics, may take several seconds in the communication pipeline.

"Instant information to the point-of-activity is paramount to getting the job done accurately and on time," says E.B. Lyda, Boeing project manager. "The job breaks down if a technician has to climb down from the scaffolding and walk to the nearest PC (and probably wait in line) to wait for instructions to print out or to order a part.

"We tried a hard-wired solution prior to installing the wireless LAN: We snaked a coaxial data line about 65 feet down from the ceiling of the hanger and hooked up a PC that way, but that didn't work. The cable wasn't reliable, gave us no mobility or the option to add or take away computers, and eventually it broke."

Another major benefit of the wireless LAN is found outside the busy hanger. In some of the buildings, such as tool sheds, parts warehouses and administration properties, the computers are linked to the network via the wireless LAN.

"Running a mile of fiber optic cable through buildings and concrete would be a prohibitive expense and take months," observes Lyda. "We've added wireless LAN access points and antennas (about 30 blanket the facility to provide overlapping coverage) so our entire facility is covered, even in remote posts where there are only one or two computers."

The system has provided benefits Boeing never considered. For example, the service technicians can immediately respond to emergency requests; an E-mail finds the technician anywhere on the Boeing property, even if the technician is in his car or a remote garage heading to a prior job. No longer does the technician have to wait to retrieve voice messages or worry that a page may not have reached him.

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