Imagine a “no-touch” system for tagging and tracing nearly any production part. One that uses off-the-shelf imaging tools including smartphones, generates compact data that can be stored indefinitely and links to common tracking and serialization tools. That’s the idea at Alitheon, a machine-vision software developer based in Bellevue, Washington, which has engineered a new item-level digital-traceability system for manufacturers.
Alitheon created software that enhances off-the-shelf imaging hardware – from industrial cameras to the lens on your smartphone – with algorithms that allow them to see the details of any object at a mathematical level. That math becomes a digital fingerprint that represents the product and can later be used for verification. The technology has obvious applications in the automotive sector, and Alitheon’s backers include BMW i Ventures.
“We're bringing traceability to parts and components that have historically resisted it completely,” Chris Kaufield, chief revenue officer for Alitheon, explained. “The digital-fingerprint technique allows any item to receive its own unique identity, even if it’s produced in the millions. We want to help manufacturers trace not only finished products but any component critical to quality, safety or performance.”
Alitheon’s no-touch system simplifies adding digital traceability to established production systems. “The basic element is a camera operating at the right place and time,” Kaufield noted, to which Alitheon mates software that “understands” the part. “In a way, we're giving standard imaging devices a new super sense,” he explained. Many industrial manufacturers already are familiar with cameras used for functions such as metrology, product confirmation and packaging. Alitheon leverages those common types of optics to convert any product into a digital format that is tamper-proof.
“The data for every object is individually encoded, like your own fingerprint,” Kaufield said. “Our software generates math to represent a physical item by analyzing its image. The result is a digital key that is always locked to the product itself.” Alitheon’s trademarked name for this is FeaturePrint, and it holds more than 35 patents, most related to object analysis and verification. “We have built-in tolerances for issues like wear, corrosion and changing orientations, so a digital fingerprint can remain valid over the service life of a product.”
A FeaturePrint file is quite small, typically around 100 kilobytes, minimizing storage and network demands. “The digital fingerprint data we create is typically about a tenth the size of a [JPEG] image, because it contains only information that describes an object’s identity, not the pixels originally captured,” Kaufield said. “Machine-vision software condenses physical details, such as tool marks, surface variations or dimensions, into an irreversible ID for that object alone.”
The FeaturePrint process allows the system to see an object once, and then verify it as often as needed over its lifetime. For some applications, this might only be long enough to move a part across an assembly hall, for other cases it could be years later when it’s time for warranty service, customer support or recycling. “We support the scope of the business process,” Kaufield said. “Since FeaturePrint runs at the speed of optics and software, it can retrofit a rapid production flow, or it can support longer-running scenarios, like mobile field service. The digital fingerprint can be checked as long as it can be stored, so it has an indefinite useful lifetime.”
“OEM and government customers are now telling their suppliers, ‘You need to start figuring out item-level traceability if you expect to win our upcoming RFPs and partnerships.’ As a result, these companies are looking for a way forward without completely disrupting their current operations or product designs,” Kaufield said. “A zero-touch, all-digital retrofit may be the most practical solution.” He also noted that since the COVID-19 pandemic, determining product origin and authenticity is “absolutely coming into our day-to-day conversations.”
Dovetailing with digital security
Creating a digital ID provides data that can be aligned with production serialization and genealogy systems. Whatever digital tools are used to track production can be augmented with digital IDs that can follow a component through the production chain, allowing manufacturers to access it at any point in the production process. In terms of security, this includes verification protocols such as blockchain.
“Tracking technologies that are touchless bring an extra layer of confidentiality that help prevent counterfeiting efforts,” said Pramita Mitra, Ph.D., technical expert, IoT & blockchain applications, Ford Research and Advanced Engineering. “Combined with blockchain, touchless tracking technologies can limit the access to part verification methods only to authorized stakeholders in the field, thus making it difficult for counterfeit parts to enter the value chain.”
Automotive already is one of the most digitally infused and traceable industries, but when managing subsystem components such as gears or fasteners, production methods may be decades old and lack a digital layer completely. Traceability also comes into play at the other end of the component spectrum, such as with defense projects or embedded electronics, where sourcing specialized components involves massive amounts of associative paperwork to establish provenance. “We do that digitally,” Kaufield said. “We're providing a secure data wrapper to any part that our software can see.”
Ideal for additive manufacturing?
Touchless ID systems seem to hold great promise for additive manufacturing (AM), addressing the traceability challenge for products made with new materials or outside traditional plant environments. To the human eye, unauthorized AM parts can appear identical to the genuine item, further stressing the supply chain and demanding item-level verification techniques.
“As we accelerate the implementation of AM for production parts, we need to concurrently implement systems to trace and track both the physical and digital twins along the entire value chain from design to end-of-life,” said Ellen Lee, Ph.D., technical leader, additive manufacturing at Ford. “Due to AM’s ability to enable decentralized and distributed manufacturing of parts, the digital workflow can involve many stakeholders along the value chain. Tracking of the digital files and data are required to ensure quality and safety, and also needs to be done in a way that protects the security of highly sensitive data.”
“As we develop systems, including blockchain technology, to secure the digital workflow, we need to be able to link or tag the digital twin to its physical counterpart,” Lee explained. “Technologies that allow us to provide that link – that are insensitive to changes that may occur to the physical parts during the production and use phases – are paramount for providing this level of traceability. This allows OEMs the ability to realize distributed manufacturing of AM parts while being able to certify genuine parts that meet all safety and performance requirements.”
In highly refined, highly engineered markets like automotive and aerospace, traceability will only become more important as AM and other automated-manufacturing techniques proliferate. “Today’s manufacturers need to make their production methods and assets natively digital,” Kaufield said. “At Alitheon, we're not re-engineering the business, we're not ripping out equipment to do this. We create digital traceability with the click of a photo.”Continue reading »