Photo by SpaceX
The aerospace industry today represents what it means to have a global economy. The largest aircraft manufacturers in the world build planes and spacecraft using parts sourced from around the world – and we’re talking about a lot of parts. Aerospace manufacturers use direct part marking to help track the parts that go into constructing an airplane like the Boeing 747, which is made from over 6 million individual parts.
Throughout the aerospace industry, lasers are used to ensure the quality, durability and traceability of parts. Here are just five of the reasons why aerospace manufacturers have chosen laser marking as their preferred method of marking parts for aerospace applications.
Aerospace Wire Marking According to SAE AS50881
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is a leading publisher of standards for the aerospace industry, with its documents guiding best practices throughout the aerospace industry. According to SAE AS50881, the most recent standard for wiring of aerospace vehicles, wires in aerospace vehicles should be marked for identification every three inches. A Boeing 747, made from 147,000 pounds of high-grade aluminum, contains 171 miles of wiring – that’s a lot of laser markings!
Wire marking is one of the aerospace applications where laser marking has proved most effective. Laser provide a high quality, permanent means of marking coated wires and multi-core cables with bar codes, 2D DataMatrix codes or other identifying markings. A purpose-built laser wire marking system can mark in excess of 100 feet of aerospace wiring per second, making it significantly faster than alternative marking methods like chemical or physical etching. The mark is embedded mere fractions of an inch into the material surface, ensuring permanence and durability with resistance against fluid damage or abrasions.
Laser Marking Backlit Plastic Parts for Aerospace
In an airplace, the cabin and cockpit are full of backlit plastic parts that are ideal for laser marking. These parts include control panels and dashboards in the cockpit, information arrays that alert the pilot about internal and external conditions, control panels, button consoles, and other visual and interactive displays used to operate the plane.
In the cabin, you’ll notice back-lit emergency signs, along with the no-smoking indicator and the seatbelt indicator that corresponds to each seat. Laser marking is the safest and most cost-effective way to create permanently legible markings on control panels and other instrumentation that pilots need to use on a regular basis. The laser beam creates marks on plastic products by ablating the surface layer of plastic and exposing the clear or translucent plastic underneath.
The use of laser marking ensures that information or labeling that is present on control panels and dashboards does not degrade over time and remains legible for the operational life cycle of the plane.
Unique Identification Markings for Department of Defense
Aerospace manufacturers must comply with regulations set forth by the Federal Aviation Administration when manufacturing places for commercial use, but there are additional regulations in place for government contractors, specifically those that deliver aerospace parts or products to the Department of Defense (DOD).
The DOD has issued a policy indicating that all assets that are acquired through the United States DOD supply chain must be marked for individual traceability and verification if they are valued over $5,000. With this new policy, the DOD hopes to integrate item data across DOD, Federal and industry asset management systems, improve its item management and accountability practices, and enhance both the visibility and life cycle management of assets.
The DOD publishes a guideline for marking parts in accordance with the GS1 system, including guidelines for constructing a Global Individual Asset Identifier (GIAI) that can be used to mark specific parts.
Traceability and Verification Markings on Aerospace Parts
Modern aircraft are built using millions of individuals of different parts that are sourced from around the world. When a part malfunctions or proves defective, aerospace companies must be able to identify where the part came from to report the defect and ensure that other possibly defective parts are not used in ongoing manufacturing activities.
In addition, manufacturers can use Direct Part Marking (DPM) to track parts throughout the manufacturing process and supply chain, even up until the point they are incorporated into a completed airplane. Manufacturers may purchase individual components with their own traceability markings, combine those components into a sub-assembly with its own traceability code, and add that sub-assembly into a larger system that gets its own code before becoming part of a final product. Laser marking for part verification and traceability is used for nearly every part that goes into an airplane, including:
- Gear Systems – gear parts, ID plates, screws, actuator, power generator
- Brake System – landing gear parts, brake disks, reverse thrusters
- Propellers and Turbine Components – Blades, rings, segments, screws, discs
- Fuel, Hydraulics and Controls – Generators, pumps, thermal exchange systems, hydraulic lines, wiring, switches, ID plates, control panels, sockets/wine rope
- Frame Structure Parts – Balanced parts, prototypes, precision components
In the past, one-dimensional bar codes have been the most common traceability marking for aerospace applications, but today many aerospace parts manufacturers are applying two-dimensional bar codes that can hold even more information on a smaller space.
Laser Marking Ceramic Heat Tiles for Aerospace
Photo by NASA-Imagery
Want proof that laser markings can stand up to the toughest environments on Earth? For this innovative example of laser marking in aerospace applications, we’re venturing outside the atmosphere altogether for a look at thermal protection systems. When NASA or SpaceX designs a rocket that will leave the atmosphere, it must be equipped with a thermal protection system (TPS).
When a rocket ship re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, it travels at a high speed from a vacuum, with no particles in the air, into an atmospheric environment where the air is full of particulate matter. The speed of the rocket and the friction it experiences on re-entry into a particulate atmosphere lead to extremely high re-entry temperatures where the surface temperature of the rocket can reach or even exceed 1250 degrees Celsius.
Along with other materials, ceramic tiles are used to insulate the aluminum fuselage of the rocket from the intense heat produced by atmospheric re-entry. Still, these tiles need to be individually marked to ensure their traceability – both during the manufacturing process, and in the event that tiles are damaged or separated from the fuselage of the rocket during operations. Aerospace manufacturers trust the quality and durability of laser marking systems to produce traceability markings that can withstand the massive heat produced by rockets that must re-enter the atmosphere.
The scope of laser marking applications within the aerospace industry is extensive. Laser marking for wiring in the aerospace sector is a crucial application for planes like the Boeing 747 that contain over 100 miles of wiring. Using a specialized laser wire marker, manufacturers can mark in excess of 100 feet of wiring per second, a feat that would be impossible using alternative methods.
Backlit plastic parts are used throughout the cockpit and cabin areas of most aircraft. The manufacturing process for these parts uses lasers to ablate the surface of the plastic, exposing the translucent plastic underneath and permitting the light to shine through while providing a waterproof barrier that protects equipment from damage.
When major purchasers in the aerospace industry create new requirements for manufacturers, they tend to stick. The DOD’s requirements for unique identifiers on purchased products requires aerospace manufacturers to construct GIAIs that will be used to identify any asset that is part of a fixed inventory. Within the industry itself, direct parts marking is used to trace parts from all sub-systems of an aircraft through the manufacturing and supply chain process and into their final position as part of a completed aircraft.
Ceramic heat tiles are one of the best examples of the durability and quality of laser marking systems. Thermal protective systems are often marked user laser systems, as these markings can stand up to the extreme heat of atmospheric re-entry.