The Dark Horse of Killer 3D Printing Apps: Eliminating Counterfeit Parts


The Rise of 3D Printing’s Killer App: Comprehensive Traceability of Parts

The world of 3D printing has been steadily evolving for decades, but it’s only recently that the technology has truly hit its stride. As the global economy continues to face uncertainty, one killer app of 3D printing has quietly emerged – comprehensive traceability of parts. Although it may not have garnered much attention yet, it won’t go unnoticed for long.

In late August, a Bloomberg article shed light on a concerning discovery – years worth of counterfeit certification documents for subpar spare parts. These fake parts were distributed by a small, relatively unknown aerospace component supplier based in London called AOG Technics Ltd. This revelation has sent shockwaves through major aerospace companies like Airbus, Boeing, and Safran, leaving them scrambling for solutions to fix the damage. In the long run, the only viable solution may lie in the complete digitalization of supply chains.

Additive manufacturing (AM) technologies, commonly known as 3D printing, are uniquely suited to tackle this issue. The corporate players involved in the aerospace sector have been at the forefront of AM innovation, making significant advancements over the last decade. While digitalization is not the sole solution, the vulnerabilities associated with counterfeit parts stem from analog problems. This emphasizes the need for a digital transformation, especially when considering the case of TAP Air Portugal’s maintenance subsidiary. The fake parts from AOG Technics were not only refurbished but were passed off as new through forged documents. This problem is fundamentally a documentation issue fueled by a continued reliance on paper, a problem that should have been eradicated by now.

Fortunately, the necessary technology to address this problem is finally reaching a scale where it can effectively solve the issue. It is now practical to incorporate 3D printed traceability solutions into the design of replacement parts. With the current level of manufacturing readiness in the AM sector, achieving this task is entirely feasible.

There are several solutions available for leveraging 3D printing to achieve digital traceability across entire supply chains. One example is embedding 3D printed QR codes, which were originally developed for tracking automotive components. While most applications rely on polymer 3D printing techniques, new methods using metal have emerged in recent years. One particularly promising example comes from a research project at Texas A&M University, published in the journal Additive Manufacturing. The project utilized directed energy deposition (DED) to embed magnetic tags into nonmagnetic steel parts, enabling quick detection through a three-axis magnetic sensor. The researchers suggest that this technology could be extended to embed QR codes within metal parts.

When it comes to aerospace engines, the 3D printed parts currently in use represent only a small portion of the total weight. Therefore, embedding traceability mechanisms into the design of these parts would not significantly alter the engine’s functionality. Instead, it would merely add the feature of identifiability. Another less disruptive approach could involve requiring packaging solutions for new parts that incorporate 3D printed traceability.

In conclusion, the killer app of comprehensive traceability of parts is finally gaining momentum in the world of 3D printing. The recent counterfeit parts scandal in the aerospace sector has highlighted the urgent need for a digital overhaul of supply chains. With the capabilities of additive manufacturing and the availability of various traceability solutions, it’s only a matter of time before this killer app becomes the new norm. The restoration of trust and the prevention of future counterfeit incidents depend on it.

The trend of digitalization in supply chains has been gaining momentum in recent years, with more and more companies moving away from traditional paper trails and embracing digital inventories. Boeing, a pioneer in this field, recently partnered with Israeli software company Assembrix Ltd. to further advance their digitalization efforts. In October 2023, Assembrix announced that it will make its supply chain digitalization software, Virtual Manufacturing Space, available throughout the Gulf Region.

However, the underlying issue causing supply chain disruptions remains the same: the lag in supply behind demand. This has created a market niche for parts with falsified certifications, as suppliers need these parts quickly and certification procedures cannot keep up. Tim Zemanovic, an airline industry professional, succinctly stated, “If people want to cheat, it’s going to be hard to stop them. There’s a lot of trust involved.”

Relying solely on trust is untenable, especially when money is involved, as fraud can easily occur. To establish a secure environment, it is crucial for aerospace manufacturers to know that their supply chain providers are reputable. This can be achieved through digitalization, which allows for traceability and transparency. Digitalization is not a matter of degree, but rather a threshold that companies either cross or don’t. If critical elements of a supply chain can be put at risk with forged documents, then the supply chain is not truly digital.

Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, plays a vital role in achieving comprehensive digitalization. It is not the only technology required, but it is difficult to see how the change can happen without AM. The ability to scale AM for supply chain digitalization opens the door to numerous other advantages that AM offers. Once the path to rapid scalability is unlocked, the process becomes self-perpetuating. This scenario becomes more realistic as cooperation across sectors emerges.

One example of this cooperation is the 3D Printing in Auto Repair Task Force, which recently released its final report. The report emphasizes that the problem of counterfeit parts is not unique to the auto manufacturing industry. Digital traceability can be the application that motivates decision-makers to seek cooperation over competition.

In conclusion, the move towards digitalization in supply chains is crucial for the stability and security of critical industries such as aerospace. AM plays a central role in achieving comprehensive digitalization, and once companies embrace it, the benefits and advantages become readily accessible. Cooperation across sectors further enhances the possibilities of digitalization. The future lies in embracing digital traceability and leveraging technologies like AM to ensure secure and efficient supply chains.

Original source


“Why did the 3D printer go to therapy? Because it had too many layers of unresolved issues!”

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