Traceability at the particle level

Online Editor

Cody Burke explains how traceability can embed confidence into the additive manufacturing sector

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, will play a central role in the future of manufacturing. Already, this emerging technology is rapidly becoming more sophisticated day-by-day with increasing adoption for true production applications. This is no surprise – 3D printing is a 30-year-old technology but has taken off in recent years due to advancements in materials and software. It is easy to rapidly deploy with minimal set up costs. It can be used to plug gaps in supply chains and create custom parts rapidly. It can shorten supply chains by enabling local production, reducing supply chain carbon footprint. It can lead to less material waste in production, reducing manufacturing’s environmental impact. The possibilities are endless.

Yet, there is still some hesitancy to adopt 3D printing in some sectors. Of all the ways 3D printing will shape our future, the ability to democratise the manufacturing industry is perhaps one of the biggest changes – and this comes with high risks of counterfeiting and to the supply chain.

In today’s day and age, knowing the source-of-origin of your product is crucial for both consumers and industry alike. In areas with high specification requirements, such as aerospace, automotive, defence and medical devices, traceability is essential to ensure the correct certified materials and designs are used to comply with regulations for safety and performance of the parts. In other areas, it is simply smart business – the global trend towards sustainability, ethical sourcing, and net zero is here to stay, and knowing where your materials came from can give consumers and businesses confidence that they are being socially responsible.

Alternative methods of validating the origin and specifications of a product aren’t all-encompassing and are not well suited for emerging advanced, digital manufacturing methods. They can be manipulated or brazenly fabricated. They only ensure traceability from the point of manufacturing on – so do not provide true end-to-end traceability from material compounding to part end-of-life.

To give a sense of scale, these gapes in the traceability chain have led to a frightening 520,000 counterfeit parts installed annually in aeroplanes and 8% of all medical devices in circulation being fake. These trends are almost certain to worsen as global supply chains continue to strain under the impact of Covid, geopolitical tensions, and extreme environmental events.

We need a solution that embeds confidence within the actual material itself, ensuring that materials, and any part made with that material, are verifiable from start to finish. SmartParts was developed to solve this.

SmartParts embeds the equivalent of a covert barcode into the material itself or it can be added during post-production. And just like a barcode, this can then be scanned to reveal a full history of object, including the origin and specifications of the material itself. It’s a high-level solution to the digital manufacturing traceability problem, linking physical assets to digital data to enhance traceability.

Materials and parts are embedded with the company’s Intelligent Material particles, with a unique optical ID linked to digital manufacturing data in the SmartParts cloud platform. When scanned with a simple handheld scanner, the particle’s unique ID provides a link to the digital manufacturing data on the cloud. There are a variety of scanners options that provide visual, auditory and haptic responses that further validate the product.

To optimise for different materials and applications, the company “programs” certain characteristics into its Intelligent Material particles including the size and shape of the particles. The particles can be detected at the parts per million concentrations, reducing any concerns about impact to the integrity of the material in question. In certain cases where embedding the particles into the material is not an option, they can be applied in a post-processing step with dyes, sprays, and coatings.

After scanning, the digital manufacturing data can then be accessed through SmartParts’ own browser-based interface, or via integrations into third party applications, for example manufacturing execution systems (MES), enterprise resource planning (ERP), and project lifecycle management (PLM).

By linking physical parts with digital material data, end-to-end traceability can be achieved at the click of a button, which gives companies more confidence in their products by mitigating the risks and challenges of digital manufacturing.

Earlier this summer, the company won Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division’s Sixth Sense Open Innovation platform. It’s been a valuable experience and offered the support needed to further the SmartParts journey with access to both internal and external mentors and coaches to refine the firm’s product roadmap. Since the win, the firm has continued to accelerate its business, and has been offered opportunities to develop integrations of its solution with Hexagon products used by top manufacturing customers in the Hexagon ecosystem.

Data (and digital transformation) underpins the future of most industries. SmartParts puts that data within products at the particle level. There is a breadth of possibilities for the future of this solution, and the company is particularly excited about the multiple future applications to aid in sustainability and ESG, including recycling enforcement for local governments. Whereever there is 3D printing, SmartParts can provide confidence to the process.

Cody Burker is chief operating officer of SmartParts

Recent Issues