SmartParts is an integrated solution that combines materials, hardware and software to connect manufacturing data to additive materials and parts

Programmed particles prove provenance of printed parts

Image credit: Printparts

E&T spoke to the co-founder of start-up PrintParts about its tagging technology for materials used in additive manufacturing, which aims to address traceability barriers in this sector. How does it work?

One of the key concerns facing the increasing adoption of additive manufacturing (AM) by OEMs and their suppliers alike is traceability. And with industries such as aerospace and the medical sector operating under strict regulations, reporting and quality control requirements, it’s imperative that industry tackles this issue across the AM ecosystem and supply chain, so it’s viewed as a viable option for manufacturing processes. 

But how can the industry address this? While some experts believe improving the connection between hardware (3D printers) and software through automation is key in ensuring end-to-end traceability, New York-based start-up PrintParts has developed an alternative solution: embedding ‘digital barcodes’ into 3D-printed parts. 

Indeed, its SmartParts solution uses data-rich particles that can be embedded into the materials of 3D-printed parts, which when scanned reveal the material and part full specifications and history. The solution will enable industries with specific technical requirements, such as aerospace and defence, and those with strong environmental, social, and governance (ESG) commitments, to have greater control over their supply chains and processes and encourage responsible business decision-making. 

According to the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), around 520,000 counterfeit aerospace parts are installed in planes each year. At the same time,the World Health Organization reports that around 8 per cent of all medical devices are known to be fake. This trend poses a risk to the safety of planes that fly daily and threaten the health and safety of patients in the medical field alike. 

The developers of the SmartParts technology hope it will help combat this issue by directly connecting physical assets with digital records, ensuring end-to-end traceability and trust in 3D printing.


Image credit: PrintParts

But how does the technology work? We learn more about it from co-founder and chief operating officer of PrintParts, Cody Burke. 

Although Burke cannot reveal the exact process of how the digital barcodes are created, he tells E&T that core to SmartParts is a programmable particle. “It is made from undisclosed rare earth elements that, when subjected to pressure and heat in a controlled manner, allow us to yield specific physical characteristics and optical responses,” he explains. 

The method allows PrintParts to control the size, shape, and what Burke describes as the “optical conversion” of the particles – when they expose the particle to a wavelength on the light spectrum, it will return a signal. “Once we’ve optimised a particle or material based on its size and shape, we give it a specific conversion, and we then register that conversion in our database to create an ID for that particle that is then linked to a digital record,” he says. 

PrintParts’ ID system comprises particle-powered taggants that are embedded into the printed material. “We incorporate the particle into the base material that an object is going to be manufactured from,” he says. “For example, we would mix these particles into resin filaments for resin-based manufacturing processes or put these into pellets for injection moulding.”

Burke stresses that the company’s Intelligent Material particles are embedded into base feedstocks at parts per million (ppm) levels. This is to prevent any real contamination from affecting any material’s properties or its print performance. 

Parties involved in the AM process can then scan finished components with SmartParts scanning hardware, which reference the embedded material tag against a database of other IDs. The tag will allow people across the supply chain to view information such as the part supplier, where it was manufactured, and the material from which it was made. “It will allow for necessary traceability to confirm that manufacturers made an aircraft component from an FAA-approved material, for instance,” Burke adds. 

Burke explains that incorporating the particles into the printing process is the most “elegant” solution to ensure those involved in the AM process get end-to-end traceability of a certain component, but this may be limited for certain applications. 

As an alternative, the particles can be applied during post-processing as a dye or a coating. “We can print the particle onto an object in a similar way to an inkjet printer,” he adds. “We have a variety of delivery methods depending on the manufacturing process and customer requirements.”  

This opens up the possibility of treating parts with the particle, perhaps using an automated system. But it also means that items made traditionally could be coated with SmartParts’ particles. For this reason, such a solution could be valuable to multi-technology service firms such as Siemens. The firm also believes the technology could be beneficial in current quality control methods for conventionally made parts developed by original equipment manufacturers such as Ford or Airbus.

While PrintParts is currently focusing on the AM industry and manufacturing, it’s likely that the technology could find its way to other industries. For example, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the programmable particles could be included in future versions of Covid vaccines so that vaccine passports are updated with the latest injection. 

Burke tells E&T that the reason PrintParts is currently focusing on AM is that there has so far been a lack of standardisation for quality control and traceability within production environments. Counterfeiting also poses a risk because of the unique nature of AM – more people have access to these printers, and the issues associated with counterfeit parts are only going to increase. 

“Additive is at a really interesting point right now, as it transitions from prototyping into production, but these sorts of standards on traceability are yet to exist within the industry,” Burke explains. “So, there’s an opportunity there, and we believe everything we’re developing could be applied to general manufacturing as well.”

PrintParts says it is currently conducting a three-phased approach to bringing the technology into the forefront of the manufacturing world. First, it is working alongside additive OEMs and material companies to provide IDs for high-​requirement materials and parts. It will then introduce the full SmartParts platform to manufacturers and users of parts to achieve full end-to-end traceability. Finally, the technology will be expanded to broader manufacturing technologies.

The firm aims to establish an ecosystem of partners who can benefit from the technology, tackling the entire value chain, from material compounders to end users. This includes materials companies, where PrintParts is conducting feasibility tests to determine if its particles can be added to materials for authentication, source-of-origin proof for ESG reporting requirements, and for lot and batch traceability for different powders.

While it’s not known how the solution will compare to existing methods for ensuring traceability in an AM environment, it is hoped the technology will have huge potential in the production space. 

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