Traceability is extending deep into the aerospace supply chain, enhancing quality, improving efficiency and simplifying maintenance.
Alastair Morris, sales director at Pryor Marking Technology, has more to say in this article:
Originally posted in Machinery Digital Magazine August 2017
Traceability in the aerospace supply chain enhances quality, improves efficiency and simplifies maintenance. Alastair Morris, sales director at Pryor Marking Technology, explains how advances in marking technology, networking and data management make it available to the man.
In an industry as tightly regulated and safety-critical as aerospace, component quality is always high on the agenda. As a result, aircraft makers have long insisted that their top tier suppliers incorporate traceability into their components, to ensure reliability and enable the identification of the root cause of problems.
Giving every part a unique identity – and tracking that identity across the lifecycle of an aircraft – has traditionally been a costly and complex activity, limited to larger organisations producing high value parts and sub-assemblies. Now, however, unique part identification and traceability are becoming increasingly accessible to the wider aerospace supply chain. That’s thanks to a number of trends, including the introduction of sophisticated yet cost-effective marking solutions and the evolution of the industrial internet of things (iIoT). Today, businesses of all sizes and production scales can enjoy the benefits of precise, accurate traceability of individual components throughout their manufacturing, logistics and product support activities.
There are many different ways to identify components, but not all marks are made equal. Effective marking is central to any successful traceability system; if parts cannot be distinguished, it is simply not possible to track them. More traditional methods of tagging parts, such as with a sticky barcode label or human readable serial numbers, are still widely used. But these approaches have significant limitations. Sticky labels can eventually peel away, while printed IDs can become illegible over time.
To overcome those, and other, issues, machine-readable Data Matrix 2D barcodes are fast becoming the industry standard for part identification. Data Matrix codes can store more information than conventional serial numbers or 2D barcodes, allowing parts to carry details about raw materials, manufacturing process parameters and other relevant data.
DATA MATRIX REDUNDANCY
Data Matrix marks also feature built-in redundancy, meaning that if they get damaged, scratched or wear away they can still be scanned and the data accessed without any loss. This level of consistency is crucial for life-cycle traceability, if the parts are to be scanned when they are being used in the field and traced back to the source of supply.
Data Matrix codes are also ideally suited for marking directly onto a part and because they can be extremely small – there have been applications in which they have been laser etched smaller than 0.2 mm2 – it is possible to use them on the most compact components.
One of the most effective marking methods in aerospace is dot peen. It is the go-to option for a number of important reasons: for starters, it is low stress, but since it can be applied with a controlled and repeatable force it also delivers an unrivalled level of consistency.
Many companies introduce traceability at the request of their customers, who want to be able to identify components for maintenance purposes and respond quickly to isolate quality deviations. A growing
number, however, are recognising the power of product marking to improve their in-house manufacturing and quality assurance activities.
For example, marking individual parts with an ID tag, as early in the manufacturing cycle as possible means that they can be scanned repeatedly at reading stations as they pass each stage – building a log of essential information about production processes. This data can then be analysed against other parameters and used for detecting trends and possible areas for operational improvements, as well as any quality concerns before the component has left the factory.
Indeed, implementing a system that enables unique identification at the component level goes beyond dealing with product recalls and knowing what is already out there in the field. It can allow companies throughout the entire supply chain to monitor production data to determine areas where efficiency can be improved in manufacturing processes to boost output, while cutting costs and material waste.
The introduction of marking and tracking systems that are relatively inexpensive to implement means that even small firms can now access these benefits, leading to higher quality, lower costs, enhanced profitability and happier customers.
The cost, capabilities and value delivered by any traceability system depend on the systems and software that underpin it. This is an area where technology has evolved rapidly in recent years. Today’s systems are significantly more powerful, reliable and easier to implement than those of the past. The latest developments include moving towards marking, vision and data management equipment that performs all the functions needed in one fully integrated solution as part of a highly automated smart factory. Pryor (https://is.gd/omuhod), for example, has introduced complete systems that comprise laser marking and reading devices along with sophisticated data management software to enable firms to simply and efficiently implement traceability.
The evolution of the iIoT also makes it more straightforward to connect traceability systems with other technologies within the factory. They can link seamlessly with machine control systems, for example, allowing production equipment to automatically configure itself to carry out the required operations on each part presented to it. Likewise, links to central manufacturing execution systems can ensure that every part has the correct, unique mark and help companies track those parts through their production flows.
In production monitoring, specialised software can prevent potential quality problems from occurring in the first place by flagging up bottlenecks and issues in real time. The software will immediately bring attention to any issues, so that manufacturing and maintenance engineers can intervene quickly to remedy the fault and eliminate the risk of downtime or a hold up further along the line.
Beyond connectivity within just one facility, advanced traceability software systems can be networked between global aerospace manufacturing sites to allow for remote knowledge sharing, whatever the scale of the operation. Meanwhile, if there is a quality issue beyond distribution when the product is either in the assembly stages or out in the field, it will be possible to simply drill down into the system data to rapidly identify the specific faulty component, so that only that one needs to be recalled, rather than an entire batch.
Greater levels of process control and superior traceability capabilities are increasingly becoming the industry norm in the aerospace sector. Original equipment manufacturers expect their contractors and suppliers to be able to provide this degree of production activity intelligence as standard and it can sometimes be the deciding factor when awarding contracts. But traceability doesn’t just benefit the end customer. Companies anywhere in the supply chain can use the ability to track individual parts during production to reduce errors, cut waste and improve their own business performance.