Aerospace Suppliers Look to Blockchain for Parts Tracking

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Rolls Royce Trent XWB engines designed for the Airbus A350 family of aircraft
Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines, designed specifically for the Airbus A350 family of aircraft, are seen on the assembly line at the Rolls-Royce factory in Derby, November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Paul Ellis
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By Victoria Bryan
BERLIN (Reuters)

Aerospace suppliers are starting to explore blockchain technology to keep tabs on their supply chain, potentially tracking parts such as that at the center of a Southwest Airlines accident last month

While blockchain is best known as the digital transactions technology that underpins cryptocurrency bitcoin, it can also be harnessed to track, record and transfer assets across all manner of industries, potentially smoothing operations, cutting costs and improving cash management.

The challenge faced by the aerospace industry in keeping track of tens of thousands of different parts came to light when it emerged after last month’s fatal explosion that some airlines do not keep track of the history of each individual fan blade within an engine.

 

An Airbus A321 in the final assembly line hangar at the Airbus U.S. manufacturing facility in Mobile, Alabama
An Airbus A321 in the final assembly line hangar at the Airbus U.S. manufacturing facility in Mobile, Alabama, September 13, 2015. REUTERS/Michael Spooneybarger

 

In addition to the operational and cost benefits, improved parts management could speed up safety checks after an accident, industry experts said, and an increasing number of aerospace suppliers are looking at blockchain as a potential solution.

Blockchain offers a secure encrypted audit trail because there is only one version of the data, meaning it can be used to ensure traceability without reams of paperwork. It is already being used to track cobalt on its journey from Congo mines to smartphones, for example.

Moog, a U.S. manufacturer of flight control systems, is working with partners to create a blockchain-based solution called VeriPart, which will initially be used to track 3D printed components.

Moog’s technology chief George Small said the aerospace industry, like other highly regulated sectors such as the medical and nuclear power industries, was expending considerable effort on tracking parts across the supply chain to keep up with quality and regulatory demands.

 

TRANSPARENCY

Small said the use of blockchain could increase efficiency and transparency in the sharing of data and that customer feedback has been positive so far. Though VeriPart is still in development, Moog has already had talks with customers on other potential uses for the technology.

“The solution is broadly applicable to manufactured goods and associated data that need to be tracked across supply chains from origin to delivery and on into service,” Small said in an emailed response to questions.

 

 

Advocates for the technology say transparency is ensured by the encrypted audit trail and because blockchains are open and decentralized, allowing different parties to share information.

Engine maker Rolls-Royce is among those working with blockchain developers to establish how it could be used in the supply chain and says it is rapidly developing solutions.

“The company sees opportunities to automate records for complex products that currently require significant manual effort to ensure they are well managed,” a Rolls-Royce spokesman said.

 

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