Manufacturers See Blockchain Tracking 3-D-Printed Parts Through Supply Chains

Speaking on the Industry 4.0 Panel at the Consensus 2018 event in New York City, May 15, 2018, from left: CoinDesk’s Brady Dale; Sarah Banks, managing director, global freight & logistics, F&L blockchain lead, Accenture Labs; GE Ventures Managing Director David Rosenberg; Spherity GmbH CEO Carsten Stocker; James Allen Regenor, director, transformative technologies, at Moog Inc. PHOTO: STEVEN NORTON / THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
NEW YORK — Just as blockchain technology can help trace food from farm to table, so too might it help manufacturers certify and trace 3-D-printed parts through their supply chains.

Speaking at the Consensus 2018 conference, panelists described how distributed ledger technology could create an immutable data source that identifies 3-D-printed parts down to the machine that made them, the technician who worked with them, and the atmospheric conditions under which they were produced.

Firms throughout the supply chain could use that data, shared on a common, unalterable ledger, to certify the provenance of parts, ensure they were manufactured properly, and quickly identify the source of any defects.

“Right now it takes companies months to go through papers to distill where the fault is,” said James Regenor, business unit director for transformative technologies at Moog Inc., which manufactures systems and components in the aerospace, defense and industrial sectors, among others. A distributed ledger could create a trusted — and ideally unbiased — source of information for manufacturers and their customers throughout the supply chain.

“Because we have audit trails, we don’t have to have the part in front of us to trust that it was built the right way,” Mr. Regenor said.

Large firms are experimenting with blockchain to track food through the supply chain. The technology could prove especially helpful during recalls or other food safety scenarios, allowing firms to figure out the source of an offending item during a recall. FedEx Corp. on Monday said it was developing technology that would allow it to monitor shipments beyond its own tracking systems.

Panelists Tuesday noted that useful blockchain systems will require all parties involved to agree on how data is stored and shared across the network, a governance challenge that will take significant time to complete. They also noted potential security issues, as well as the need to be able to move data among blockchains while preserving immutability.

Blockchain’s Role in Factory Automation

The distributed ledger technology is being tapped to foster trust and build transparency into extended supply chains and to facilitate mass customization.

Blockchain, primarily associated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, is increasingly hitting the radar screens of manufacturers as a mechanism to enhance supply chain visibility or promote supplier coordination around mass customization. These externally focused applications seem to hold the most potential for Blockchain, as experts see far less applicability for Blockchain to enhance existing technologies used to integrate internal manufacturing and automation systems.

Characterized as a distributed ledger technology, Blockchain records transactions between multiple parties in a way that is transparent, verifiable, and immutable. Given that manufacturing encompasses a series of transactional interactions, experts are putting stock in the potential for Blockchain to be a more efficient and trustworthy way for extended supplier ecosystems to securely record and share information.

Blockchain’s ability to store data in unalterable blocks, coupled with its peer-to-peer, secure record-keeping capabilities, establish an easy-to-follow audit trail that is vastly more effective than traditional methods built around email, siloed systems, and manual record keeping. At the same time, Blockchain promises to be far less susceptible to fraud, which is a growing problem for manufacturers.

Manufacturers face a future defined by a number of prominent trends, including novel uses of automation to address the ongoing skills shortage, globalization, a move toward mass customization, and the rise of connected factories as part of Industry 4.0. Blockchain is well positioned to meet many of the challenges associated with those trends.

For example, Blockchain can deliver a granular and real-time view of a global supply chain while documenting chain of custody for products to establish that regulatory requirements are met and to expedite troubleshooting in the event of part failures or product recalls. As part of a broader Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) strategy, Blockchain can help form the foundation used to orchestrate predictive and proactive maintenance strategies, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to potential use cases, according to Prasad Satyavolu, Global Head of Innovation, Manufacturing and Logistics at Cognizant, a digital services company.

As with any fledgling innovation, however, manufacturers need to be circumspect about their broader strategy and zero in on the applications where Blockchain can have a meaningful—if not fully disruptive—impact, Satyavolu says. “Blockchain has to be a broader part of a next-generation manufacturing strategy—it can’t just be a technology you go for,” he cautions. “To transform manufacturing with Blockchain, it has to be part of a broader gambit to provide more personalized products, to tap into a localized supply base, or to take advantage of IIoT. Those are all imperatives that feed a strategy for Blockchain.”

What Blockchain is not yet shaping up to be is a technology for improving internal transactions and system-to-system interactions. “Within the confines of your own trusted network, companies are already well secure from an internal plant standpoint,” Satyavolu says. “Within a plant environment, there isn’t a great use case.”

In highly regulated industries like aerospace, Blockchain can play a role in verifying product and part authenticity and provenance. Source: SAP

Early-stage Blockchain applications

Moving cautiously, manufacturers are starting to experiment with early Blockchain use cases. An Aberdeen study of 100 manufacturing companies found that 37% have current business and manufacturing processes in place that support Blockchain and an additional 29% are actively exploring the technology to improve existing processes. Traceability was the most anticipated application for Blockchain in manufacturing (55%), followed by records management (53%), supply chain automation (51%) and payment via cryptocurrencies (51%).

Less explored are applications in which Blockchain works inside the factory—for example, as a way to facilitate automatic ordering of parts by machines for preventive maintenance, cited by 29% of respondents to the Aberdeen survey, and for shop floor automation, noted by 28%. Nearly a quarter of respondents had no plans to implement Blockchain in manufacturing applications.

One of the most anticipated use cases of Blockchain is for track and trace, to help manufacturers foster better visibility and trusted relationships among their extended, global supply chains. In addition to the ability to create and administer smart contracts, Blockchain provides an immutable record of the chain of custody of goods, which can be leveraged in numerous ways—from helping to prevent leakage and the spread of counterfeit goods to tracking down at-risk suppliers in the event of a part failure, and even creating transparency and specificity around sourcing to build trust and demonstrate that compliance regulations are being met.

“One of the biggest problems we hear about is that companies have a three- or four-level deep supply chain. And even those best-in-class companies don’t have visibility beyond their tier one suppliers,” says Bhagat Nainani, Group Vice President of Oracle IoT and Blockchain applications. “They don’t know supplier quality, yet they’re responsible for the final product.”

With a Blockchain approach, all quality-related transactions, hand-offs, and the chain of custody for products are written into the Blockchain and endorsed by all parties, and the resulting records are tamper-proof. “So if there’s a quality issue and a company needs to do a recall, they know exactly which item, which test case and which downstream product is affected,” Nainani explains. “Today, companies do broad recalls and can’t identify what batch or supplier portfolio is affected. That results in revenue loss and brand erosion.”

To help manufacturers get started with Blockchain, Oracle has released a suite of business-ready Blockchain applications. They include end-to-end traceability of goods and transactions in a supply chain to reduce delays and automate recordkeeping; lot lineage and provenance for aiding in regulatory compliance, counterfeiting and targeted recalls; intelligent cold chain for tracking and ensuring quality for refrigerated products in pharmaceutical, and food and beverage industries; and warranty and usage tracking to eliminate paper-based processes for high-value assets. “Providing a toolkit of components is not sufficient,” Nainani maintains. “It takes longer to implement and get ROI, and manufacturers just want to get started quickly.”

Other enterprise software giants, including SAP and IBM, have also released packaged Blockchain solutions. IBM, for example, has the IBM Food Trust initiative, which uses Blockchain technology to create visibility and accountability in the food supply chain by connecting growers, processors, distributors, and retailers through a permissioned and shared record of data. On the heels of recent E. coli outbreaks, Walmart announced it will be using the platform to underpin its Walmart Food Traceability Initiative,with an initial focus on leafy greens suppliers.

As part of its Blockchain Co-Innovation Program, SAP is working with 60-plus customers and partners to advance Blockchain development in areas such as distributed manufacturing, asset intelligence, and track and trace. Its advanced track and trace for the pharmaceuticals industry, for example, helps members comply with regulations designed to combat drug counterfeiting; and its farm-to-consumer offering is designed to bring food producers and retailers together to improve compliance and increase confidence in food safety, explains Gil Perez, SAP’s Senior Vice President of Products and Innovation and Head of Digital Customer Initiatives.

Blockchain isn’t a replacement for current technologies, but rather enhances existing processes to provide a higher level of trust and confidence. It’s an especially good fit for manufacturing industries and processes that are highly regulated. “Everyone has visibility into the same information all the time as opposed to a siloed system,” Perez explains. “It doesn’t replace business processes, but it does create a fabric or connective tissue for everyone, notifying them of delays, integration issues, or if systems aren’t connected.”

Though Blockchain isn’t the integration layer that continuously passes data between systems, it can be used to integrate critical data from enterprise-level systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or manufacturing execution systems (MES) into a Blockchain pursuant to a particular use case. Consider a new product that can’t be launched into production until the proper product ID is initiated. Instead of extracting that information from the ERP system or MES via manual processes, manufacturers could create a system that automatically retrieves the right data, creates an ID, writes it into the Blockchain, and applies it to a part at the point of inception. Though its customers can develop these capabilities using a toolkit approach, SAP will release native Blockchain versions of its core enterprise platforms this spring, which will facilitate such integration right out of the box, Perez says.

The convergence of Blockchain with emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and 3D printing is where the rubber meets the road for real transformation, according to James Allen Regenor, Co-Founder of the Blockchain Resources Group(BRG, a proof-of-concept adviser for the Blockchain Research Institute) and Chief Solutions Officer for Fr8 Network.As part of his work with Moog Aircraft Group,a co-innovation partner of SAP, the company developed VeriPart, a Blockchain-based system for verifying the quality of aircraft replacement parts that are 3D printed through on-demand manufacturing networks.

In this application, Blockchain delivers a shared database that provides provenance and authenticity to meet U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) standards and provides traceability of the part through its design-manufacture-use lifecycle. “By transferring a part with a Blockchain hash, you can tell if data has been corrupted or if someone acquired that data,” Regenor says.

It also allows manufacturers to do rapid forensics on a part for recall purposes. “Today, companies have to figure out what the sample size was and do a root cause analysis,” Regenor explains. With Blockchain, “that data is available and transparent without having to shift around pounds of paper.”

What comes next?

Eventually, experts see Blockchain playing a role in day-to-day manufacturing operations, including asset management and minimizing manufacturing downtime. For example, through Blockchain technology and IIoT analytics, an asset could trigger a secure order of replacement parts when there are indicators of part failure so the proper components are on-site just in time for installation.

To get the ball rolling, experts recommend that manufacturers set up a Blockchain center of excellence and initiate some proof-of-concept projects. It also helps to join consortia that cater to the relevant industry segment and ensure there is top-level executive sponsorship, since the technology involves a significant element of change management.

“[Blockchain] requires a certain executive commitment for change,” notes Cognizant’s Satyavolu. “If it’s just done as a ground-up experiment, you can’t get scale and it won’t move the needle in terms of the benefits you can achieve.”

Project Success: Blockchain Huge Success Story with Five Demonstrations

Between February and the beginning of March 2019, the CTMA project Adapting Blockchain Technology for Additive Manufacturing was successfully demonstrated at five depots.

  • Marine Corps Fabrication Lab at Twenty-Nine Palms, CA
  • AMRDEC at Corpus Christi, TX
  • Fleet Readiness Center Southwest, CA
  • Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Keyport, WA
  • Tinker Air Force Base, OK

With industry participants’ Guardtime Federal’s technology and MOOG, Inc.’s VeriPart™ 4.0 enabling platform employing Blockchain, security of technical data packages used in additive manufactured parts can be assured.

VeriPart is a distributed, Blockchain-based transaction system that can provide per-part provenance and traceability across a distributed network. Blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, permits each transaction of record to be recorded on a shared, distributed ledger where authorized parties can query transactions for authorization and traceability of provenance back to source requirements.

This project demonstrated the capabilities of VeriPart with one polymer and one metal part printed at each demonstration site. Additionally demonstrated were: counterfeit mitigation, smart contract execution, part provenance to validate the process/build integrity and ledger auditability, followed by a build analysis against the design.

Demonstrated at the five locations, VeriPart confirmed that it could ensure that the digital asset wasn’t manipulated, the source is valid, only the permitted quantity was made, and the intellectual property ownership was protected.

The next and final steps for this successful project are a brief to leadership as well as a final report.

Moog’s connecting flight to distributed manufacturing

How much could you get done in the 12 hours between take-off and landing? Watch a couple of movies of questionable quality? Encourage yourself through a sub-standard meal? Catch a few hours of turbulence-disrupted sleep? Notice a faulty part, order its replacement, manufacture its replacement, and install it once back on the ground?

Earlier this year, a Boeing 777-300 aircraft, bound for Los Angeles Airport (LAX) departing from Auckland (AKL), carried out a proof of concept centred around the simulation of a broken cabin part. Upon reaching cruising altitude, the crew radioed back to the Air New Zealand maintenance facility in Auckland to report a Business Premier bumper part – which sits between seat and monitor to ensure the seat isn’t damaged when the screen is pushed back to default position – needed replacing.

The maintenance team used its access to a digital catalogue of parts uploaded by Air New Zealand’s MRO provider, Singapore-based ST Engineering, and ordered a replacement component. ST Engineering identified the nearest certified 3D printing system to where the passenger plane was due to land and pushed the order through for Moog Aircraft Group to additively manufacture. This all happens at approximately 1am Pacific Time. By 7am, the mobile printer is deployed, printing the part ready for use well before the aircraft lands at 11am. Within 30 minutes of being on the tarmac, the part is replaced, and the plane can now complete its three more scheduled trips before returning to Auckland.

“That’s a part that does fail on occasion,” Tim Abbott, Digital Transformation Manager, Moog, tells TCT. “It’s a product where the supply chain is not very responsive, they did not have physical inventory on that part, and even if they had it was not at their LAX facility. It would have been a 44-day lead time, [and] it would have cost them roughly 30,000 dollars in revenue loss for the three legs that they would not have been able to occupy that seat.”

Moog has been working with extrusion and powder bed fusion additive manufacturing technologies for more than ten years, getting to grips with process control, material properties, machine-to-machine consistency, with a view to harnessing them for flight critical components further down the line. The company typically focuses on critical precision control systems, and specifically in the aircraft industry, mission-critical systems in primary and secondary flight control. About five years ago, around the time Abbott came on board, the company’s thoughts around additive began exceeding rapid prototyping and quick tooling, reaching for other benefits of the technology.

“We did something called scenario-based planning where you put yourself in a situation in the future where you can envision the value being added and then work backwards to identify where the gaps are that you need to fill to get there,” Abbott recalled. “This had a commercial and military aspect. You put yourself in a scenario where an operator has a critical need for a part, they have an aircraft down, they have access to a 3D printer and you’d be able to produce the part at the point of use, the time of need, creating a drastic reduction in lead time, creating higher operational flexibility, and on the commercial side, reducing revenue loss.”

Moog’s answer to this hypothetical, yet likely scenario is VeriPart, the programme which catalogued digital files of parts for Air New Zealand to access during the failed part simulation. This demonstration of the VeriPart programme validates Moog’s goal of creating a digital marketplace that is open to all part suppliers. VeriPart is a private permissioned environment, meaning the intellectual property of supplies is protected by encryption so only those with access can get information on parts. The need for physical inventory is taken away, parts can be requested on-demand, both in remote locations via mobile devices and with workstations on the shop floor. Meanwhile, Ethereum blockchain technology is ensuring traceability of every step of the process, from the design and production of parts, to the journey it takes from conception through to installation.

“It’s going to create a new way of doing business in the aerospace market,” Abbott reckons. “We’ve tailored this towards additive manufacturing because it’s the only way we see right now where you can do truly distributed manufacturing. But all the trust and the provenance that we’re able to do in the digital space now applies to traditional supply chains within aerospace, there are a lot of human interactions and hand-offs as you move from raw material provider to the machine house that creates a sub-component to the OEM that may produce an assembly to the platform integrator all the way to the operator. By using blockchain we’re able to create a living history of all those interactions that happen at each organisation and between each organisation and there’s a digital record of it.”

It means a move away from chasing paperwork to understand the lifecycle of a part; a simple scan of a code brings up information around overhaul, production, where the material came from, nearly instantaneously. Accounting information and trade compliance may also be available. Moog’s VeriPart platform will be accessible to OEMs, IP owners, and service manufacturers, allowing them to create relationships that enable true distributed networks.

Blockchain is the pivot to it all. Not only does it make the VeriPart system function, but Moog is also relying on it to ensure trust in a field where most organisations are steeped in traditional supply chains and every part is regulated at every step of the process. The cost of failure is so high, both in terms of equipment and human life, that those receiving a part, additively manufactured or otherwise, would typically have access to reams of paperwork to back up that this component was produced as it was intended and is thus safe to use. That was the challenge facing Moog.

“Working in a completely digital space, how can I operate with the same assurance that this is the part Moog intended for me to have, that nobody’s manipulated it, put an internal design flaw in it, and that we have the same provenance digitally all the way back to the originating design?” Abbott asks, assuming the role of a machine operator. “Just sending something to an email or normal file transfer left a lot of gaps. That sent us on a search of ‘how do we solve that problem? How do we gain digital trust to an additively manufactured part created in a distributed manufacturing network?’

“We stumbled across blockchain technology roughly three years ago and had that ‘ah-ha’ moment that this is, right now, a very good technology to actually provide that trust and provenance in a digital space.” This process is being auditioned through an array of demonstrations, similar to the one carried out with Air New Zealand and ST Engineering, each one counting as a small step towards Moog’s ultimate ambition. The company is all about providing flight-critical components and relishes the opportunity to be able to do so at the point of need in breakdown situations.

Additive technologies are currently in the process of hurdling the regulatory barriers to widespread implementation in the aerospace industry. Abbott projects plastic interior cabin parts becoming more common in the next three years, evolving into metal parts in five to ten years, and then beyond that we may begin to see critical metal parts flown. While patience is required, it at least gives Moog time to build confidence in its VeriPart platform, so when additive is ready, so is distributed manufacturing.

“One thing we want to do, because we know that it’s coming and we know that we have the technology for distributed manufacturing, is create this trust environment,” Abbott finishes. “We want to make sure that we keep that progressing with the maturation of additive such that when we get there, both systems are ready to co-exist and create the most value in the marketplace.”