It’s the new buzzword on the block. But what does blockchain actually mean for manufacturers? Graeme Wright, CTO Manufacturing & Utilities, Fujitsu UK & Ireland, explains.
Isn’t Blockchain just a fad?
Put simply – No. Blockchain is all too often confused with crypto-currencies; they just are one solution built on the technology. Blockchain offers a fundamentally new approach to sharing information between people and organisations – one that is built on trust and by sharing the ledger (list of records) enforces an immutable statement of truth that can be therefore be used to ensure security. On top of that, the idea of smart contracts allows machine to machine transaction (contracts) to be executed automatically.
How can Blockchain be used in manufacturing?
There are so many ways – but for just one example – think of the costs involved in managing the supply chain and ensuring provenance – Blockchains with smart contracts can automate these processes, reduce the cost to marginal levels and ensure that a company’s resources are focused on the value added tasks so increasing productivity at lower cost.
Blockchain offers a fundamentally new approach to sharing information between people and organisations
What are the benefits?
The benefits will depend on the exact use case as per the one described above. However, the key benefits of Blockchains can probably be summarised ultimately as reductions in cost, increased provenance across complex supply chains, and increased security especially for connected products,
What are the risks for people who ignore it?
Without being flippant – it would be not to have the benefits mentioned – but what that means is not having full traceability and provenance – which may lead to inferior products. E.g. imagine if a supplier of components used NFC or RFID tags that were registered in a Blockchain on each component. A business would know that every component was genuine and the trust would be part of the shared ledger so fake products could not be added to the ledger. If a product recall was needed or a customer needed a replacement then this could be done simply and at low cost whilst also ensuring consumer continued to get the product quality they bought. The spare/replacement parts market is often very large and ensuring consumers get the right replacement parts that keep warranties valid is a massive challenge. I also believe this could be used to overcome certain tax – import/export issues.
How important is it for engineering/manufacturing to have a diverse workforce and what can Industry/Government do to help?
There are so many facets to that question – I think from a socio-political perspective it is very important – however, I also think that from an innovation perspective it is very important. The last thing business need is everyone having the same type of background, gender, cultural, etc. as this limits the ability to new ideas. This is well documented as a way in which good businesses fail. How can Industry/Government help? – Keep pushing the diversity and inclusion agenda – but be careful not to discriminate against those to have experience as well. Whilst we all know that the next generation bring great insight by challenging the status quo and asking the question ‘why wouldn’t we do it this way?’ or something similar; whilst not accepting answer ‘we have always done it this way’. However, experience has a lot of value as well – mistake we have all made are lessons we can all learn from. The point here is ensure people are treated equally – but putting hard metrics that must be met out of context can be less than optimal if not dangerous.
What would you put in Engineering Room 101?
A difficult one. I think connector leads, particularly HiFi/TV leads. They just create a mess of wires, you never have the right ones or the right length and working out what goes where can be a challenge for many. I think with the wireless technologies we have today; it is the start of the end for wired connectors and not before time.
A new wave of innovation based on blockchain technology is seeking to disrupt a whole range of industries. But is there substance beyond the hype? Andrew Wade reports.
So, what exactly is blockchain? It’s a distributed database technology that records and timestamps transactions in blocks, creating a chain that acts as a ledger. The ledger is decentralised across multiple computers, making it virtually impossible to retroactively alter, and thereby inherently secure.
Readers will likely be familiar with bitcoin, the digital currency that introduced the world to blockchain. Bitcoin transactions do not require a trusted third-party, theoretically making them efficient as well as secure. However, it is not just financial transactions where trust and security are desirable, and a new wave of innovation based on blockchain technology is seeking to disrupt a range of industries. But is there substance beyond the hype?
“Blockchain is on the steep upward path to the peak of inflated expectation, which means it’s going to be on its way down pretty soon,” explained Accenture’s Craig Gottlieb at PTC’s Liveworx conference in Boston. “But that’s not to say that there aren’t practical, pragmatic applications for the technology.”
Gottlieb is a principal director in Accenture’s Aerospace and Defence Practice. These are sectors with a high degree of complexity, involving intricate supply chains, multiple stakeholders, and generally a strong requirement for security. The multitude of moving parts in an aircraft engine can engender a lack of transparency and efficiency.
“Where blockchain comes into play — and why it’s cool — is that it starts to solve some of these problems,” said Gottlieb.
A traditional, centralised ledger is owned by a single entity, with changes generally not shared. In contrast, blockchain distributes ledgers across multiple decentralised nodes, with stakeholders coming together to form consensus on transactions. As the entries are immutable, there is a permanent audit trail that can be reviewed in case of disputes.
The Bitcoin blockchain allows parties to transact anonymously. Actors are not known to each other, but can interact securely due to the nature of the system. This has led to Bitcoin and other digital currencies being adopted for nefarious purposes, such as buying illicit drugs on the dark web and paying ransom to hackers in the wake of cyber attacks.
But just as cybercrime hasn’t thwarted internet adoption, these practices aren’t preventing blockchain being adopted for legitimate ends. Companies are exploring private blockchains, where parties known to each other participate inside closed systems. Although some don’t consider these systems to be genuine blockchains — rather, they are classed as distributed ledger technology (DLT) — most agree they have potential. In fact, DLT has advantages over ‘pure’ public blockchains such as Bitcoin.
The struggle for power
Public blockchains need large amounts of computing power, and in some cases a lot of time, to generate new blocks. Bitcoin transactions can take up to an hour, something the community is trying to solve, but that is causing tension between stakeholders and impacting the currency’s price. Solutions are being tabled to speed up transaction consensus, but no agreement has been reached yet.
Private blockchains and DLT are not faced with these systemic scaling issues. Agreement on transaction consensus doesn’t require the same cryptographic rigour, so can occur quicker and without the overheads of computing resources.
“There are faster mathematical means to achieve that consensus,” said Gottlieb. “From a business standpoint, where speed matters, that format makes a lot more sense.”
One area suited to DLT is configuration management, particularly on complex systems such as aircraft. According to Gottlieb, maintaining visibility over every part of an aircraft during its lifetime is a challenging task.
“Maintenance, repair and overhaul organisations obviously update the configuration of an engine during an overhaul,” he said. “If they don’t have visibility to the current configuration of what needs to be done, they can’t schedule their capacity effectively.”
On top of this, the business models of OEMs such as General Electric rely on the accuracy of the data they use.
“They sell service plans,” Gottlieb continued. “And these are optimised around when overhauls happen, what spare parts they can sell etc. Their ability to optimise the profitability of those, and the availability of the aircraft, is rooted in knowing what’s on the engine at any given point in time.”
While Gottlieb believes blockchain can help address these issues, others are more sceptical. Purely digital transactions can be governed exclusively by economic incentives and cryptography, but transactions that incorporate action in the real world still require an element of trust.
“Immutable digital records of ownership are incompatible with an analogue world where misunderstandings and errors are commonplace and the state is the arbitrator in case of dispute,” said Ciaran Murray, founder of consultancy Verbatm. “When you’re dealing with supply chains, you’re dealing with physical objects in the real world, off the blockchain. There’s no way the blockchain can maintain jurisdiction over them, as the nation state rules supreme in the physical world.”
Although blockchain cannot have physical jurisdiction over things such as configuration management, it can act as a strong incentive to act in good faith. If one party claimed to have replaced an engine part, but a quick reference of serial numbers on the blockchain revealed otherwise, that party would be liable. In the world of aerospace, consequences could be severe.
Questions of utility
As far as public blockchains go, there are questions as to the breadth of their utility. Murray believes their use will be limited to digital currencies, decentralised over-the-counter exchanges, and perhaps prediction markets. We’ve already seen the technology challenge established views on decentralisation and its possible benefits. DLT may not have as profound an impact, but could potentially operate across any industry. In highly regulated fields, Murray believes DLT will hold greater sway, as it is compatible with existing legal and arbitration systems.
“DLT, as opposed to anarchic public blockchains, may have utility in increasing transparency and constraining corruption while possibly decreasing friction in certain areas, but it requires industry consortia to come together,” he said. “The barrier is organisational, not technological. However, the result might not necessarily be good for the consumer, with a potential opportunity for cartels to form.”
The burgeoning IoT industry is another where expectations of blockchain’s impact are high. With billions of connected devices due to come online in the coming years, blockchain could play a key role in device identity.
“If you want to have a good IoT, you need to have a good identity of things,” said Gottlieb. “You need to know that the device that’s sending you information is a device you can trust.”
But Murray, again, urges caution. Having seen blockchain evolve since its early years, he is pragmatic about its limits, and warns against the current hype surrounding the technology. “There’s no doubt decentralised identity is more secure and an insecure IoT is quite a scary proposition, but a ledger that maintains an indelible record of identities is an even scarier one. In any event, the ability to repudiate digitally signed statements is a well-established legal doctrine in most nation states, so the idea is currently legally unworkable.”
Relatively speaking, blockchain is an incredibly young technology, the long-term impact of which is hard to predict. True believers claim it will transform society, while others are suggesting that the emperor may be underdressed. Part of the fascination over the coming years will be seeing who is right.
Researchers from the University of Waterloo have designed an EV charging system that uses blockchain to engender trust between all stakeholders.
The team collaborated with an EV charging service provider that works with property owners to install EV supply equipment, which is then accessed by EV owners for a fee. However, it was found that trust among the parties was low, with no way of knowing if all sides were acting in good faith and honouring agreed payment terms. According to the study, an open, decentralised blockchain platform could ensure that EV owners did not overpay for energy and that property owners were fairly compensated by charging service providers.
“Energy services are increasingly being provided by entities that do not have well-established trust relationships with their customers and partners,” said Christian Gorenflo, a PhD candidate in Waterloo’s David R Cheriton School of Computer Science.
“In this context, blockchains are a promising approach for replacing a central trusted party, for example, making it possible to implement direct peer-to-peer energy trading.”
Blockchains are essentially open digital ledgers where every transaction is both visible and immutable, so all parties have full knowledge of interactions which cannot be retrospectively amended. According to the Waterloo team, a blockchain system could be integrated with a legacy EV charging system with minimal changes. Their paper, published recently in the Proceedings of the Tenth ACM International Conference on Future Energy Systems, states that they are working with EV charging service provider SWTCH to roll out their solution.
“Mitigating trust issues in EV charging could result in people who have charging stations and even those who just have an outdoor outlet being much more willing to team up with an EV charging service provider resulting in much better coverage of charging stations,” said Gorenflo.
“In the end, we could even have a system where there is machine-to-machine communication rather than people-to-machine. If an autonomous vehicle needs power, it could detect that and drive to the nearest charging station and communicate on a platform with that charging station for the power.”
There is no such thing as the perfect pit stop but on Sunday at Silverstone, Aston Martin Red Bull Racing got closer than anyone else ever has to achieving it. Pierre pitted on lap 12, absolutely nailing it on the marks, and the crew changed all four wheels for a recorded stationary time of 1.91seconds. It’s a new F1 record – but it’s been coming for a while.
“It’s a magnificent achievement from the pitcrew and something we are all very proud of,” says Team Principal Christian Horner. “They train with incredible dedication and a huge amount of effort and thought goes into the process. It’s wonderful to see our Team recapture the record, the competition is incredibly fierce and the technological progress is relentless – but ultimately taking the record is about people working together as a team and performing at the top of their game under the very highest pressure.”
People may watch and think taking the wheel off sounds like an easy job but it isn’t. They are heavy, and the Team have to reach forward and shift the weight at an awkward angle. Then the new wheels have to go on without any fumbles, the jacks have to come away smoothly and the driver needs to have his reactions perfect – which again isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.If it all come together and everyone’s having the perfect day at the same time then a near perfect stop is achievable.