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.”