SmartParts’ CEO & founder, Robert Haleluk explains how the aerospace industry supply chain can prepare itself for secure and verifiable 3D printing.
Additive manufacturing is being hailed as a potential cure-all for many of the production bottlenecks that can severely impact manufacturing and specifically the aerospace industry. A Boeing 747-8 for example is formed of six million different components and takes many months to assemble. Any delay in sourcing these individual components can seriously impact delivery dates and therefore costs. Recent events such as the Covid pandemic, the 2021 blocking of the Suez Canal by the containership Ever Given, and the ongoing disruptions caused by the conflict in Ukraine have brought the fragility of global supply chains into sharp focus.
Depending on the specific parts' geometry and requirements, manufacturing complex components with additive manufacturing technologies can empower companies to overcome bottlenecks quickly and effectively by embracing localised manufacturing. Additionally, additive manufacturing provides other benefits to the aerospace industry, including the ability to print complex geometries to increase weight savings and the agility of reduced inventory costs as organisations shift to on-demand manufacturing.
Adoption of additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry is accelerating as it has proved to be a useful tool in an increasingly disrupted world where supply chains are regularly impacted by global events, geopolitical tensions, and increasingly, climate change. From an economic perspective, the aerospace industry is well suited to realise the benefits of additive manufacturing given the fuel savings made possible by the reduction of weight and because of the relatively lower volumes of parts produced (compared to the mass production of automotive parts for example). This tips the balance in favour of the much lower set up costs of additive technologies compared to traditional methods.
However, increased adoption of additive manufacturing for production applications is not without risk – including a lack of robust traceability and authentication solutions. As a digital manufacturing technology with significantly lower barriers to entry than traditional methods, there is a real risk of counterfeit and non-certified parts entering the supply chain.
In fact, it is already estimated that approximately 500,000 counterfeit parts are installed in planes each year. Many of these components are indistinguishable from the genuine artifact and may be identical to the naked eye. But while they may look similar, the rigorous standards to which aerospace suppliers follow are likely not maintained by counterfeiters. It is logical to expect those counterfeit part numbers to increase substantially as the industry increases its adoption of additive technologies – it is far easier to buy a 3D printer and produce a counterfeit part than to invest in an injection moulding or CNC facility.
Embedding security into parts
To reduce the risks associated with additive manufacturing, while still taking advantage of its agility and dynamism, we need a way to verify the authenticity of materials and parts that is indelible, covert, and cannot be replicated by bad actors.
At SmartParts we have developed an embedded authentication and traceability solution that leverages ‘programmable’ Intelligent Material taggants. Our solution embeds unique optical IDs directly into base materials at extremely low concentrations, making the materials and any part made with those materials scannable from compounding through to part end-of-life.
Materials and parts can be scanned with a variety of customisable sensors, much like a barcode, to access digital manufacturing data associated with the unique optical ID. This data can include manufacturing dates, material data, lot and batch traceability, and source-of-origin for ESG or ITAR requirements. In fact, we have seen significant interest in SmartParts technology for sustainability applications. For example, verification that a metal powder was mined inside the US or the utilisation of our technology to assist in part sorting for downstream recycling.
Due to the unique embedded nature of our technology manufacturers can be 100% confident that the parts they are installing are made from the correct certified materials, originate from a verified supplier, and confirm to manufacturing specifications – ensuring the safety of future passengers and a reduction in liability risk.
While the applications of our technology are broad, aerospace represents a unique opportunity as a high-requirement segment that is in the beginning stages of adopting additive manufacturing for production.
That potential is recognised by some big industry players. Earlier this year, we were crowned the winner of the Sixth Sense open innovation programme, set up by technology leader Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division to help bring more commercial opportunities to innovative manufacturing start-ups. Hexagon has extensive reach and heritage in the aerospace industry, and as such the collaboration between our two companies has helped us further spread our message within the sector.
In an industry where security is paramount, keeping on top of the latest innovations in traceability is critical so that the aerospace segment can begin to realise the many benefits of additive manufacturing technologies while mitigating potential downsides. While some may seek to exploit the progress of this sector toward innovative manufacturing technology, the industry must adapt to oppose this threat and stay ahead of the curve.