One advantage to 3D printing of parts is the ability to make parts on demand: That is, when they are needed, rather than making and storing them expensively beforehand. But what if the airline that needs the part does not have its digital design, or lacks the 3D machine to fashion it? Or what if the aircraft in need of the part is headed for a remote outstation, which lacks design or manufacturing capabilities?
For these latter cases, a collaboration among several major aviation companies and a global software giant has proved that 3D printing can still yield a timely replacement under certain conditions and with the help of one of the latest digital innovations, blockchain. Although just a trial, it showed how collaboration among companies and combining the best in hardware and software techniques can dramatically improve the physical side of aviation supply chains in an emergency. It also points the way to a much broader use of blockchain to dramatically improve the information side of aviation supply chains.
The trial worked like this: Air New Zealand (Air NZ) simulated a defect in a polymer bumper, which sits behind a business premier monitor and prevents the screen from damaging the seat when it is pushed in. The defect was simulated on a Boeing 777 bound for Los Angeles. ST Engineering sent a digital aircraft part file for 3D printing a replacement to a Moog mobile printer pre-stationed at Air NZ’s facility at Los Angeles International Airport. The part was printed and ready for installation when the aircraft landed.
All data related to Air NZ’s request, ST’s digital instructions and actual installation was logged into Veripart, Moog’s blockchain distributed ledger. Veripart enabled ST to release its intellectual property in a controlled way, with only Moog able to print one part for only Air NZ. Veripart gave Air NZ confidence in the part and both ST and Moog confidence in protecting intellectual property in making the part, according to Timothy Abbott, Moog’s digital transformation technology manager. Veripart was supported by Microsoft’s Azure Cloud technology.
The partners are looking forward to broader uses. ST Engineering holds European Aviation Safety Agency Design Organization Approval for 3D printing by fusion-deposition modeling, polymer laser-sintering and direct metal laser-sintering, and it is working with both airlines and regulators to expand its list of 3D parts. Air NZ is a long-time customer, “making them a natural partner to work with for the trial,” says spokesman Say Huan Yuan.
Air NZ 3D-prints a limited number of cabin components already and is working with engineering partners to expand its catalog of printable parts.
Moog has been working on 3D-printing both plastic and metal parts for about a decade and began working on the Veripart blockchain in 2018 when it realized a distributed ledger was needed to ensure the required trust among customer, designer and part maker. It used a deployable printer, certified by the FAA, to print the bumper for Air NZ. Abbott says the company will aim in the future to station printers as close as possible to its customers’ locations.
Although plastic printing is more widespread now, Abbott believes printing more safety-critical metal parts will evolve to be practical with the same separate-designer-and-manufacturer methods.
And Moog fully intends to use Veripart and blockchain more broadly. For example, it plans to use Veripart for its conventional manufacturing processes. Traditional paper documentation of supply chains is unidirectional, Abbot says, and requires huge efforts to track problems backward to a source. Blockchain will make that backward reach much easier.
The OEM hopes this approach will be adopted by other companies—including competitors—in the aviation supply chain. “Blockchain is a team sport,” Abbott stresses. He believes an industry-wide effort to establish a blockchain for parts is necessary, with a consortium of companies setting the rules and governing the system. Thus collaboratively managed, the Moog executive sees blockchain evolving like cell phones did, into a platform that supports many different applications and users.
Moog already has demonstrated Veripart for the production of parts at five Defense Department locations. The current version is a permissioned distributed ledger with each participant allowed to access only data that other participants have agreed to let it see. All of the data on Veripart is encrypted so elements can be read only by companies with the right permissions and deciphering keys.
Abbott says such a blockchain will not eliminate audits in heavily regulated sectors such as aviation but should make auditing much easier.