Matrix marker draws line

Counterfeit aircraft parts could be a thing of the past after the US Department of Defence and the Air Transport Association agree to adopt 2D matrix data marking of components.

The battle against counterfeit aircraft parts received a boost when the US Department of Defence and the Air Transport Association (ATA) reached a compromise in Washington last month. The agreement will finally standardise the way spare parts are marked with a unique registration or code.

It has become increasingly necessary to mark and trace components because of the surge in counterfeit parts that followed the growth in global production of aircraft parts in the 1990s. But until now there has been little effort or success in the standardisation of the coding technology or settlement on a universally accepted format for marking and reading parts.

Currently parts are identified with alphanumeric codes, which are entered on to a part using a vibro-etch pen – effectively scratching numbers on the surface of the component. The DoD and ATA have now set a deadline for all parts to be marked with a relatively new 2D data matrix code from 1 January 2005.

Although the industry is already moving towards the adoption of a 2D matrix format, the DoD/ATA agreement demands a new encryption standard, the MIL 130L, to which all parts suppliers must adhere.

The 2D matrix can hold more information than a linear barcode in a much smaller space because the data can be stored in two dimensions and can be read by a simple camera. Because it can be applied in a variety of ways – inkjet, dot marking, laser and electro-chemical marking – the application process can be chosen to ensure the part’s performance is not compromised.

Another advantage of data matrix is its error correction capability. The system can retain 100 per cent of the data even if up to 30 per cent of the code is destroyed. Additionally the data can only be read entirely, or not at all. This means it will never deliver the wrong source, making it a very secure system.

In a bid to meet the DoD/ATA deadline leading aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus will insist that all their suppliers must mark their products with the new code. Charlie Plain Jones, sales director of Absolute Vision, which specialises in 2D code reading devices, said there is a growing requirement in a number of industries for authentication of components.

‘It is coming to a head because the majors – Boeing, Airbus and Rolls-Royce – are mandating it to their suppliers as they know if they don’t it is never going to happen. It is like fitting seat belts in cars; until it was a legal requirement no one was willing to do it. There are benefits for the buyer of components, because they have internal traceability during manufacture,’ Jones said.

The first tentative steps to standardise formats was Spec2000, drawn up by the ATA. Chapter 9 deals with establishing a common standard for tracing aeroplane components ‘from cradle to grave’.

But as Jones pointed out: ‘These two standards are linked to electronic trading in spare parts and supplies for the aircraft industry. Parts move constantly and are held by various stock brokers – so quick identification is key to viability of warehousing and e-commerce of these trading partners.’

While Spec2000 is a well-established aerospace standard and is used by airlines such as BA, United Airlines and Delta, it does not enforce a standardised technology and is essentially voluntary.

Data Matrix was developed by the Symbology Research Centre, a partnership between NASA and the CiMatrix corporation, which aimed to cut the cost of labelling the millions of parts used on the Space Shuttles and similar vehicles and eliminate problems with barcode labels being damaged through high temperatures or detaching from components. But while the matrix technology has been around for several years, it has only really taken off during the past 18 months.

Neil Andrew, technical directory of Pryor, a UK-based marking equipment supplier and a member of the ATA task force, feels that a greater awareness of the technology’s benefits is one of the reasons for the change. ‘The message has spread. There is a wider understanding of the benefits of the technology around the world. ‘The technology itself has reached a point where it actually works.

Five years ago it was a superb concept, but it was lab-type stuff. Now the vision technology in particular has advanced to a point that it is quite viable. The technology has improved in its reliability and the cost has attained a reachable level,’ he said.

This converging of factors, together with the aggressive letter from the DoD, has caused Boeing and Airbus to actively request suppliers to comply with their intentions to use 2D data matrix on all part marking. The companies have set a date for implementation in their letters to their suppliers.

Another key reason why firms such as Boeing, Airbus and Rolls-Royce are pushing for the use of 2D data matrix is its potential for tracking parts through their entire life cycles. ‘The benefits to them is that it helps them manage their inventory better, helps to protect against rogue parts and prevent part duplication. It [the push for the use of 2D data matrix] has come round now because the principle of using data matrix technology is now widely understood and the technology has become readily available over the past 18 months,’ said Andrew.

Jones of Absolute Vision provided this analogy: ‘In the old days you would have a price label which the person at the checkout would read and type out. There were obvious opportunities for a transcription error and it was clearly labour intensive. With a bar code you have all the information required in one piece and it cannot be confused.’

But the switch-over to a new marking process has not been seamless and some suppliers are becoming frustrated by the seeming lack of enthusiasm of the major players to employ 2D data matrix technology or to assist their suppliers, or employ part-marking companies to assist them.

Jeff Sawdy, managing director of Universal Marking Systems (UMS), a marking solutions company with 35 years’ experience, feels that the larger firms, which operate in a more cellular way, may not be communicating the technology within the company. ‘I think there are a few key players who know about data matrix marking and what is going on with it, but it hasn’t filtered down to management level and it certainly hasn’t filtered down to shopfloor level yet. And it isn’t going through to the supply network either,’ he said.

Sawdy’s opinion is shaped by experience. He gave an example of a company making parts for Airbus in Toulouse that tried to contact two separate companies for marking equipment. Both were affiliated to UMS and one had in fact been bought out 15 years previously.

Rolls-Royce has been working on implementing its systems for two years. A result of this work is the Trent 900, probably the world’s first data-coded engine and one of the leading engines of the Airbus A380, due to be in service by 2006.

With seven months to go before all parts supplied to the major airline industries have to comply with the DoD standard, most companies and their suppliers have their work cut out to meet the January 2005 target. It is simply too much too soon.

But it would be all worth it when finally, internationally, everyone is working to one standard for global recognition of part marking and reading technology (the MoD is due to issue a statement in June).