The risks and benefits of the additive

SmartParts CEO and Founder Robert Haleluk explains how the aerospace industry supply chain can prepare for secure and verifiable 3D printing.

Additive manufacturing is being hailed as a potential panacea for many production bottlenecks that can have serious implications for manufacturing and especially the aerospace industry. A Boeing 747-8, for example, is made up of six million different components and takes several months to assemble. Any delay in the supply of these individual components can have a serious impact on delivery dates and therefore on costs. Recent events such as the Covid pandemic, the blockage of the Suez Canal in 2021 by the container ship Ever Given and the continued disruption caused by the conflict in Ukraine have highlighted the fragility of global supply chains.

Depending on specific part geometry and requirements, manufacturing complex components with additive manufacturing technologies can allow companies to overcome bottlenecks quickly and efficiently by embracing localized manufacturing. Additionally, additive manufacturing offers 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 organizations transition to production on demand.

Robert Haleluk, CEO and Founder of SmartParts

The adoption of additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry is accelerating as it has proven 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 realize the benefits of additive manufacturing given the fuel savings made possible by the reduction in weight and due to the relatively lower volumes of parts produced (compared to mass production of auto parts for example). This tips the balance in favor of the much lower set-up costs of additive technologies compared to traditional methods.

However, the growing 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 uncertified parts entering the supply chain.

Indeed, it is already estimated that around 500,000 counterfeit parts are installed in aircraft each year. Many of these components are indistinguishable from the authentic artifact and may be identical to the naked eye. But while they may seem similar, the rigorous standards to which aerospace suppliers adhere are likely not met by counterfeiters. It is logical to expect these numbers of counterfeit parts to increase dramatically as the industry increases its adoption of additive technologies – it is much easier to buy a 3D printer and produce a counterfeit part than it is to invest in an injection or CNC molding facility.

Build security into parts

To reduce the risks associated with additive manufacturing, while taking advantage of its agility and dynamism, we need a way to verify the authenticity of materials and parts that is indelible, hidden and cannot be reproduced by bad actors.

At SmartParts, we have developed an integrated authentication and traceability solution that leverages “programmable” smart material markers. Our solution embeds unique optical identifiers directly into base materials at extremely low concentrations, enabling the digitization of materials and any part made with those materials, from composition to part end-of-life.

Materials and parts can be scanned with a variety of customizable sensors, much like a barcode, to access digital manufacturing data associated with unique optical identification. This data may include manufacturing dates, material data, batch and batch traceability, and source of origin for ESG or ITAR requirements. In fact, we have seen tremendous interest in SmartParts technology for sustainability applications. For example, verifying that a metal powder was mined in the United States or using our technology to help sort parts for downstream recycling.

Due to the unique integrated nature of our technology, manufacturers can be 100% confident that the parts they are installing are made from the correct certified materials, come from a verified supplier and meet manufacturing specifications – ensuring the safety of future passengers and a reduction in the risk of liability.

While the applications of our technology are vast, aerospace represents a unique opportunity as a high-demand segment that is in the early stages of adopting additive manufacturing for production.

This potential is recognized by some major players in the industry. Earlier this year, we were crowned winners of the Sixth Sense open innovation program, set up by technology leader Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division to help provide more business opportunities for innovative manufacturing start-ups. Hexagon has an extensive reach and heritage in the aerospace industry, and as such, the collaboration between our two companies has helped us spread our message further within the sector.

In an industry where safety is paramount, it is essential to keep abreast of the latest innovations in traceability so that the aerospace segment can begin to take advantage of the many advantages of additive manufacturing technologies while mitigating the potential disadvantages. While some may seek to harness this sector’s progress toward innovative manufacturing technology, the industry must adapt to oppose this threat and stay ahead of the game.