After decades of slow accumulation, the killer apps for 3D printing have started to proliferate more quickly, with the technology’s evolution hitting its stride as the macro conditions of the global economy persist in their unpredictability. One possible killer app that has nonetheless fallen relatively under-the-radar is comprehensive traceability of parts.
It’s unlikely to go unnoticed for much longer. Last week, for example, a Bloomberg article provided an update on a story from late August, about the discovery of years worth of phony certification documents for subpar spare parts. The spares were distributed by a small, obscure supplier of aerospace components based in London, AOG Technics Ltd. The discovery has inflicted chaos on the world’s largest aerospace companies, including Airbus, Boeing, and Safran, as they scramble for ways to undo the damage.
Whatever short-term solutions the aerospace giants may stumble upon, the only long-term solution may be comprehensive digitalization of supply chains. In addition to the fact that additive manufacturing (AM) technologies are uniquely suited to achieve that objective, the feasibility of an approach based on digitalization is suggested by the corporate players involved. Over the last decade or so, the aerospace sector’s largest companies (the ‘primes’) have achieved — and indeed, to a great extent have helped innovate into existence — some of the highest AM competencies in the world.
The Problem Is Paper
Although the need for greater digitalization is certainly not the only factor involved, the worst supply chain vulnerabilities associated with falsely-certified parts do seem like quintessentially analog problems. Consider the case of the maintenance subsidiary of airline TAP Air Portugal, where the fake parts from AOG Technics were originally discovered. Replacement dampers for the Safran/GE-produced CMF56 turbine engines were fraudulent insofar as they were refurbished parts being passed off as new, a ruse that succeeded simply by the forging of the relevant documents.
Interestingly, then, AM doesn’t even have to solve a manufacturing/technological problem here, so much as a problem of documentation. This is itself a problem ultimately made possible by continued dependence on paper, a problem which should have no excuse for existing in 2023, but does because the problem hasn’t needed to be solved until now.
Also, of course, the necessary technology is only just starting to reach a scale that enables it to fix the problem. But it is now entirely practical to expect the incorporation of 3D printed traceability solutions into the design of replacement parts. At this phase in the technology’s history, this is a task that the AM sector’s current, across-the-board manufacturing readiness level (MRL) is fully capable of supporting.
3D Printed Traceability
A number of different solutions exist for leveraging 3D printing to achieve digital traceability of parts across entire supply chains. One of the earliest examples of this is embedding 3D printed QR codes, and in fact, QR codes themselves were originally developed for tracking automotive industry components.
Those applications typically utilize polymer 3D printing techniques, although newer methods using metal have started to be developed, as metal AM in general has gained traction in recent years. An especially promising example, announced about a year ago, comes from a Texas A&M research project, published in an article in the journal Additive Manufacturing, entitled “Embedding hidden information in additively manufactured metals via magnetic property grading for traceability”.
In that project, researchers utilized directed energy deposition (DED) to embed magnetic tags into otherwise nonmagnetic steel parts. They also developed a novel three-axis magnetic sensor, enabling quick detection of the parts’ magnetic areas. The Texas A&M team’s conclusions suggested that the same technology could be developed to embed QR codes away from the surface in metal parts.
The 3D printed parts currently utilized for aerospace engines represent relatively small portions of the total weight of the engine: a vibration damper, for instance, is a fairly good example of the sort of component that AM is capable of for production. Thus, embedding traceability mechanisms into the parts’ designs would likely not fundamentally change the engines’ functionality, but rather just add the feature of identifiability. An even less disruptive way to achieve this could be to simply require the use of packaging solutions for new parts that incorporate 3D printed traceability.
In any case, all of the relevant solutions enable suppliers to avoid a reliance on paper trails, and encourage a movement toward full embrace of digital inventories. Notably, Boeing, which has been at the forefront of AM digital inventories for years, signed a deal in October 2022 with Israeli software company Assembrix Ltd.. In October 2023, Assembrix announced that it will make its supply chain digitalization software, Virtual Manufacturing Space, available throughout the Gulf Region.
The Real Issue
Of course, as I mentioned, the real issue underlying all of this is the same issue underlying all of the supply chain disruptions over the last several years: the unworkable lead times yielded by the lagging of supply behind demand. That is, the niche in the market for parts with falsified certifications only exists because suppliers need parts more quickly than certification procedures can now keep up with.
The more urgent that aerospace manufacturers’ race to ensure both the stability and security of supply chains becomes, the likelier it seems that they will increasingly realize that AM is the one stone that can kill both birds. It seems significant, for example, that the same week as the Bloomberg follow-up appeared, metal AM pioneer GE Aerospace announced that the US Army has accepted the first two T901-GE-900 flight test engines.
The T901-GE-900 will be used in three of the branch’s helicopters, including Boeing’s AH-64 Apache. The engine was developed via the Army’s Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP), with GE’s powder bed fusion (PBF) 3D printing fundamentally incorporated into the design.
Crossing the Digital Threshold
In the end, what makes traceability such a killer app is the fact that it provides incentive for companies to go all in on supply chain digitalization. The reason this matters so much is because digitalizing supply chains is ultimately not something that can be measured by degree, but is an either/or problem: a question of a threshold that you’ve either crossed, or you haven’t. If critical elements of a critical industry’s supply chains can be put at risk with forged documents alone, then those supply chains are decidedly not digital — however much piecemeal progress the relevant companies have made in going digital.
AM is not the only technology necessary to effect this change, but it is difficult to see how the change can happen without AM playing a central role. Comprehensive digitalization is the solution that AM is equipped to solve most immediately. One of the most exciting things about that, of course, is that once suppliers initiate the scaling of AM for this reason in particular, the realization of all of the other advantages AM is capable of becomes a far more doable objective. The beauty of killer apps is that once you unlock the path to rapid scalability, the process can be self-perpetuating.
This should become a more realistic scenario, moreover, as more cooperation across sectors emerges. In the 3D Printing in Auto Repair Task Force final report that was recently released, the report stresses that the problems faced by automotive manufacturers in cracking down on phony parts are by no means unique to auto manufacturing. Digital traceability could be that rare application that makes key decision-makers see paths where cooperation is more lucrative than competition.
Featured image courtesy of Authentise
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