Supply chains are about to reach a tipping point, where they will experience a completely new level of visibility and transparency. This new information will allow supply chain managers to collaborate more effectively with their colleagues, suppliers and customers.
A good example is a pilot project that was just completed by Honeywell GoDirect Trade, iTRACE Technologies and SecureMarking. This project revealed how easy it can be to transform an entire supply chain from a collection of parts into a carefully managed portfolio of individually identifiable assets.
This transformation is being driven by a convergence of technologies already available today. But, before we explain how these technologies work, we first need to explain why this is such a significant transformation for many of our supply chains. And, we can do so by examining the way the aviation industry currently tracks airplane parts.
The aerospace supply chain
Did you know that commercial jets fly at 500 miles per hour? And, that aircraft parts are re-used an average of four times during their lifetime? Safety is a top priority in the aviation industry, and in order to ensure that airplanes are safe, every part must be manufactured, used and maintained properly. Because of that, the airline industry has developed a complex and heavily regulated process for tracking airplane parts.
The supply chain for aircraft parts involves specialized manufacturers from around the world, as well as distributors, maintenance and repair operations and more. When repairs are needed, there is often an urgent business need to locate and install replacement parts quickly.
Unfortunately, much of the process used to maintain records for aircraft parts is still based on paper forms. This slows down maintenance processes. In an age of supply chain digitization, it seems obvious that a computer database can tell which specific parts are on every airplane, down to when and where each part was made and where it has been along the way. In fact, digital records should show the full provenance of every part. But, how can a company transition from the current paper-based system to a scalable digital solution?
Digital twins and blockchain
A solution to enabling this digital transformation comes from using two complementary technology trends—digital twins and blockchains.
A digital twin is an electronic record that represents a physical product. For example, do you remember when libraries actually had card catalogs? In the old days, there was an index card for each physical book. Nowadays, those cards are stored as electronic database records. And, those records are the digital twins for the books in the library.
These digital records are useful for some obvious reasons. First, they tell what books are owned by a library. Second, they tell whether a particular book is sitting in the library, or if it has been checked out. And third, they tell us who has checked a book out, and when they had it.
But, assuming that a company simply converted the paper cards into a database, those records also have some pretty serious limitations. First, every library would have its own database, so you couldn’t easily transfer the digital record for a book from one library to another. And second, the information in the digital record isn’t always accurate. For example, if someone were to steal or misplace a book, the digital record would then be useless.
In order to strengthen this system, we’d need to connect the databases between libraries and find ways to link the physical objects—the books—to their digital twins.
Connecting the physical and digital supply chains
That brings us to the project that we’ve just completed. We used a blockchain created by Honeywell’s GoDirect Trade to record the time and date on which aircraft parts were manufactured. This blockchain is like a database, but better, because the blockchain is shared securely with Honeywell’s customers and suppliers. That means information about the parts is available to authorized users throughout the supply chain. But, it also means that the digital records can be transferred from one owner to the next.
Another feature of a blockchain is that data can never be deleted. In technical terms, this is called “immutability.” By using a blockchain, we are able to share information with people inside our company, as well as with our customers and suppliers. And, we can grant them permissions to add information under specific circumstances. But, once that information is added, it can never be removed. This gives everyone in the supply chain a higher level of assurance that the digital twin is an accurate record of the physical product.
That also means that as a part moves through the supply chain, information can be added to its digital twin. As a part is repaired or inspected, that information can be added to its profile. And, when a part is eventually decommissioned, it can never be reintroduced into the supply chain.
We also needed a way to securely link products to the blockchain. For this, we marked the parts with a two-factor authentication system created by combining technologies from iTRACE and SecureMarking. iTRACE provided proprietary codes that are laser-etched into each part, and SecureMarking created an anti-counterfeiting layer to prevent anyone from altering or replicating the code.
By placing a unique high security mark on every part and then tracking its digital twin in a blockchain, everyone can be sure that the parts they are buying, selling and using are exactly what they are supposed to be.
Secure supply chain visibility
The need for tracking parts in the aviation supply chain is obvious. But, the ability to create a secure record for each item in a supply chain could also be really attractive in other industries like fashion, automotive and pharmaceuticals. Secure visibility can provide assurance that the product you are buying, selling or using is authentic, has passed all the right inspections and has received the necessary certifications.
Supply chain managers tend to manage categories of products, rather than individual items. But, this is starting to change. So, if you’re preparing your supply chain for the future, then you need to start thinking about digital twins and blockchains. By creating digital twins in a blockchain and incorporating authentication technologies, it is possible to implement a secure and scalable system that can track physical products with a digital supply chain.