04 Mar 2024

Driving forward component traceability

Traceability is already commonplace in aerospace manufacturing at the very top of the supply chain but advances in relatively inexpensive technology with greater networking capabilities mean it can now be exploited by firms throughout, down to those producing even the smallest components. Alastair Morris, Sales Director at Pryor, looks at the marking, data management and networking solutions that are driving forward the development.

With some commercial aircraft being responsible for safely flying as many as 850 passengers to a destination, it goes without saying that avoiding quality issues is absolutely critical. Get this wrong and it is not just a business problem, but also a matter of life or death. As a result, traceability has long been a vital element in aerospace manufacturing to ensure reliability and enable the identification of the root cause of potential problems.

It was traditionally just a luxury afforded to the firms at the top of the supply chain, those that had the capital and capabilities to implement the once extremely complex and costly technology needed for tracking components. Now, however, unique-part identification and traceability are becoming increasingly accessible to the wider aerospace supply chain thanks to the dawn of industry 4.0 and networking advances, as well as the introduction of sophisticated yet cost effective solutions. The resulting manufacturing landscape is one where businesses of all sizes and production scales can enjoy the benefits of enhanced inventory management through traceability.

Traceability for better process control

While much attention is paid to the need for life-cycle traceability to enable the discovery of where quality escapes stem from, it is also important to highlight the improvements that can be made in manufacturing processes within one plant through the use of marking and tracking systems that are relatively inexpensive to introduce. For particularly small firms, this is where big benefits, including enhanced profitability, can be realised through ensuring every component is individually identifiable.

Indeed, implementing a system that enables unique identifications 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, however large or small, to monitor production data to determine areas where efficiency can be improved in manufacturing processes to boost output, while cutting costs and material waste.

For example, marking individual parts with a unique ID as early in the manufacturing cycle as possible means that they can be scanned repeatedly at reading stations as they pass each stage – enabling a log of essential information about production processes to be built up. This big data can then be analysed against other parameters and used for detecting trends and possible areas for operational improvements, as well as highlighting quality concerns before the component has left the factory.

Making the most of marking

Effective marking is central to any successful traceability system; if parts cannot be distinguished it is simply not possible to track them. There are many different ways to identify components but not all marks are made equal. More traditional methods of tagging parts, such as with a sticky barcode label or human readable serial numbers, are still widely used and they do serve their purpose well to a certain extent, yet they are not truly permanent and come with their faults.

For instance, sticky labels can eventually peel away, especially if they come into contact with moisture or grease or are placed in challenging environments, while printed IDs can become illegible over time. On the other hand, machine-readable Data Matrix 2D barcodes are fast becoming the industry standard for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the storage capacity is exceptionally high by comparison with other codes as it is possible to hold up to 3116 characters in a single Data Matrix. This enables big data banks to be built up with details of manufacturing parameters – anything from the origins of parts to how long it takes it to travel between production line stations to the ambient temperature in the factory – to increase the intelligence that can be retrieved by operatives when looking for where possible performance improvements can be achieved.

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 0.2sqmm – it is possible to use them on the most compact components. Dot Peen marking is a particularly good way to deliver the unique ID onto metal surfaces, as stress levels can be closely controlled and marking is highly accurate and repeatable, something that is crucial with aerospace parts. Alternatively, most materials can be laser marked, which provides extremely fast and non-contact application of a unique ID. Data Matrix codes can be applied in less than half a second.

Perhaps most importantly, Data Matrix marks 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 supply chain.

Implementing part traceability

Realising the maximum benefits of traceability weighs heavily on the systems and software being used. 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, 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 Industrial Internet of Things also means that the systems and subsequent captured data can become an even more powerful production tool when connected with existing technologies within a factory, such as manufacturing execution systems, and networked and controlled on a central server. At the most basic level, it can check the part IDs to ensure each component has a unique mark and that there are no duplicates.

In production monitoring, the 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 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.

Gaining a competitive advantage

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. Ultimately, traceability can help firms throughout the supply chain to optimise their own operations on the ground for better productivity and business performance, on top of having the potential to significantly enhance the quality of parts and the safety of aircraft.