Wilbur and Orville Wright completed the world’s first powered flight in December 1903 in their aircraft Kitty Hawk. Since that time as Aviation has developed the industry has worked tirelessly to improve air safety. The establishment of confidential reporting platforms that allow those experiencing or witnessing events that could affect air safety to report them without fear of punishment has also helped to raise safety levels. Further, legislation along with powerful government affiliated regulatory bodies which have put in place all manner of mandatory rules and procedures continue to raise standards along with the confidence and comfort levels of air travellers.
That said, whilst much is improving with air safety one area that continues to cause ever-growing concern relates to counterfeit/illegal parts (collectively referred to as bogus parts) that are able to be infiltrated into the controlled parts system. For those engaged with producing bogus parts the financial rewards of doing so can be immense, and therein lies the incentive to apply considerable effort to bypass the system. A sub-standard aircraft part bogusly manufactured for a few GB Pounds can be sold on for hundreds - I’m told that this is bigger than the mark-up for cocaine dealing. Technically sophisticated assemblies such as passenger jet wheel brake units can be sold for 10’s of thousands. Not too long ago a large passenger jet-liner ran off the end of a runway and the subsequent investigation showed that 4 of its eight brake units were substandard bogus parts.
When a licensed/accredited Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) produces a part for an aeroplane the documentation process that follows the part’s production is extremely detailed. For more critical parts the documentation can, as applicable, include source information for raw materials, verification of stages of production (eg. plating, painting, tempering etc) including identification details relating to the actual tools and technicians involved in the process.
Once all the manufacturing requirements are met and suitable quality assurance checks are successfully completed the part will receive official verification and be issued with a Goods Release/Receipt/Received Note/Number or GRN. This is also known as a Batch Number. Without this number and its associated certificate/documentation, no part can legally be fitted to an aircraft. When the part is fitted the certifying aircraft engineer must scrutinise the part and its documentation and believe them to be authentic. The engineer will then record details of the part and its Batch number in the Aircraft’s Technical Log prior to signing the release to Service. Documentation/certification accompanying the part at the time it is fitted will be retained in aircraft records until two years after the aircraft is permanently removed from service. This enables the origins of any defective part to be tracked back so that any other similar parts produced at that time/location can be tracked down and assessed.
This all seems fairly watertight but the system leaks and the counterfeiters and criminals know where the weak points are. The worldwide abuse of the aircraft spares system is colossal. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the USA believes that 166 serious aircraft accidents involving American aircraft (either by registration or construction) between 1973-1993 were caused by bogus parts. Another downside to the current system affects law-abiding aircraft operators who are holding billions of Dollars worth of aircraft spares locked in quarantine stores unable to use them due to lost/missing documentation.
Counterfeit parts can be produced to look like the official item and provided with out-and-out counterfeit documentation. This is difficult to police for a number of reasons not least of which is the disjointed nature of the global aviation industry. Aircraft operators in Asia may not be aware that similarly numbered parts are fitted to an aircraft in South America as they operate independent certification systems. It is possible to check back authenticity but the process is lengthy and costly and may only be performed following an accident.
Aircraft parts retrieved or stolen from crashed or scrapped aircraft can also be illegally re-introduced to the aircraft parts system. Again the lack of a co-ordinated parts system makes this possible. Whilst abuse of the parts system is vulnerable to unscrupulous operators many law-abiding operators unwittingly pay full rates to purchase bogus parts believing them to be authentic and legal.
Blockchain technology can provide the answer and help drive the counterfeiters out of business. An Aviation based Blockchain Platform containing details of the output of authorised part manufacturers would provide irrefutable confirmation regarding the integrity of spare parts. Any attempt to duplicate certificates would immediately be flagged up as would any attempt to add fictitious parts into the system. When an aircraft is removed from service all parts listed as fitted to the aircraft would be accounted for. Those parts permitted to be removed and returned to service would be recorded as would those permanently removed from service. The blockchain would not permit unauthorised parts being reissued so their individual unique identifying numbers would be permanently removed from the system.
Location of individually identifiable parts could be verified at the push of a button. Aircraft operators could, with collaboration, monitor spares availability and streamline their spares requisition systems. Regulatory bodies would also be better placed to monitor and police controlled aircraft parts to ensure compliance and authenticity. Another benefit to regulatory bodies would be the easy access to world-wide information relating to parts under investigation following an incident. Manufacturers of aircraft parts would also benefit enormously as only parts produced legally by themselves could be purchased.
The only losers from the introduction of a Blockchain based parts system would be the counterfeiters and criminals who would be prevented from placing their bogus parts into the market.