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Parts Traceability Is Crucial to Compliance in Aerospace Production

Dec. 20, 2023
There is increasing regulatory attention on suppliers and third parties, and soon it’ll be critical to know exactly where all your parts come from and how they get to you.

Achieving compliance with quality standards in aerospace machining compliance is as challenging as it is critical. Costly penalties aside, noncompliant components can endanger human lives if they make it to the final, installed state in an aircraft. Complicating the quality issues are deliverability factors: supply chains are complex and issues can emerge from any direction, making compliance difficult.

Manufacturers’ first instinct to improve compliance is to look inward. After all, you have more control over your internal processes, so why not refine them? Those adjustments are important, but no compliance strategy is complete without parts traceability. Here’s why.

Changing Supply-Chain Regulations

Many new and forthcoming U.S. regulations put manufacturers’ suppliers in the spotlight. Some incentivize switching to domestic sources, some restrict imports from certain countries, and others seek to boost sustainability. The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) has recommended further regulatory changes to aerospace supply chains.

Whatever specific steps are necessary, these changes all have one thing in common — increased regulatory attention on suppliers and third parties. As this trend continues, it’ll become critical to know exactly where all your parts come from and how they get to you. Failing to gain that visibility could result in costly fines down the road.

Limited visibility.  Despite this growing need for visibility, many supply chains lack it. This issue extends beyond aircraft parts traceability. Businesses across industries often cannot see past their Tier 1 suppliers, making it virtually impossible to tell every component’s true origins.

Without that visibility, you cannot have confidence that your final product complies with all standards. Regulatory pressures aside, a lack of visibility can lead to unseen quality issues, even endangering aircraft safety if problems do not emerge until after production. If the aerospace manufacturers want to prevent these issues, they will have to improve parts traceability.

Frequent counterfeiting.  Supply chain fraud is also a surprisingly common occurrence. Counterfeiting is a $600-billion global industry. While fake retail goods are the most recognizable part of this issue, counterfeiting extends to manufacturers, too. Many companies unknowingly deal in counterfeit parts, and because supplier networks are so complex, it’s challenging to recognize how they enter the supply chain.

The aerospace industry came face-to-face with this issue in mid-2023: inspectors found counterfeit components in the most widely installed aircraft engine for aircraft operated by all major U.S. airlines. Better parts traceability would prevent widespread crises like that one.

How to Enhance Traceability

Given these risks, aerospace supply-chain visibility must improve. Happily, there are many ways to pursue that goal. Here’s a look at some of the most important steps.

Improve identification methods.  First, aircraft manufacturers need a reliable, fraud-resistant way to identify genuine parts. Paper documentation is too easy to falsify. Instead, opt for secure digital tracking mechanisms, physical on-part stamps or — ideally — both.

Working with suppliers that etch or stamp permanent marks into parts will remove doubt over these authenticity seals. Methods like dot-peen marking provide non-erasable proof of origin without incurring longer lead times. Dot-peen marking machines can mark four to eight characters per second on average.

Embrace IoT.  Next, supply chains should implement Internet of Things (IoT) trackers. IoT devices provide wireless, real-time updates on their location and can monitor factors like product conditions and storage temperatures. The main advantage is that you can see precisely where any shipment is at any given time.

IoT tracking is more expensive than simpler alternatives, but the extra trust and potential savings from compliance assurance are worth the cost for manufacturers and their customers. However, these devices are susceptible to hacking — evidenced by skyrocketing IoT attack rates — so cybersecurity is critical. Change the default passwords on all IoT devices, encrypt their data traffic, and regularly update their firmware.

Consider blockchain tracking.  Blockchain is another helpful technology for aerospace machining compliance. A blockchain is a ledger of digital records distributed over a wide network of devices. Most important, these records — called “blocks” — are visible to any authorized user but impossible to change.

That transparency makes blockchain tracking ideal for boosting trust in a supply chain. Several medical, automotive, and food businesses have begun experimenting with blockchain technology to improve the reliability of their supply chains, and the aerospace industry should follow suit.

Perform regular audits.  Finally, aircraft manufacturers should regularly review their supply chains and compliance strategies. Supply chains are changing rapidly, with 81% of manufacturers adding new suppliers for some components, so regulatory efforts also must adapt.

Review your suppliers and third parties at least once a year. Verify that they’re adhering to any relevant regulations and company-specific protocols. It’s also a good idea to perform a risk analysis to see if there are any gaps in your compliance strategy you should address.

Compliance is crucial

Aerospace machining compliance is about more than just avoiding legal expenses. It’s a matter of public safety. As such, it’s essential to take it seriously.

Your compliance isn’t complete if you stop at your own organization’s processes. You also must gauge the processes in place for your suppliers, so parts traceability deserves your attention. If you can recognize that and follow these steps, you delivery aerospace parts with confidence and in compliance.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest industrial innovations.