Articles

Blockchain and the manufacturing industry

[Together with Chris Berg and Jason Potts this article was published in the Australian Technology Manufacturing Magazine]


Bitcoin was invented in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto as a censorship-resistant cryptocurrency built for the internet. With regular fiat money centralised bodies such as banks and governments control the records of who owns what. For bitcoin those records are held in a decentralised blockchain. Blockchains are updated and maintained by a decentralised network. To ensure the transactions and records are correct, economic incentives to continually drive the blockchain network towards consensus.

Applications of blockchain extends beyond records of money. We rely on trusted third parties to maintain our registries, enforce our contracts, and maintain our records. Entrepreneurs are now discovering which roles carried out by third parties such as governments and firms will be shifted towards blockchain-based decentralised networks.

Blockchain is now being applied to trace goods along supply chains, to give control of medical records to patients, and to create decentralized identities that help people move across borders.

What does blockchain mean for Australia’s manufacturing industry?

At first glance manufacturers produce physical products and then transport those goods to consumers. More deeply, the manufacturing process is heavily reliant on databases of information in multiple directions along their supply chains. This is especially true for advanced manufacturing. When goods and inputs move, information about them must move too. This includes information about the provenance of sub-components and intermediate parts, information about the integrity of rare products prone to counterfeit, and information about ethical standards in production.

It’s harder to produce this supply chain information than you think. The information must be coordinated between hundreds of parties in the supply chain. Most of those parties don’t know or trust each other. And this information is still often paper-based or siloed within organisational hierarchies. The result is a trail of information about manufactured goods that is prone to error, fraud and loss. And these problems only get worse as supply chains get longer in a globalised world, and manufactured goods become more complex.

Blockchain technology presents a different way to govern supply chain data that centres on the movement of the good itself. Rather than passing pieces of paper between supply chain participants to track goods, information can be recorded in a decentralised blockchain. In practice goods are given a digital representation. Then as the goods move, information about them is timestamped in an immutable blockchain. Importantly this information is stored outside of organisational boundaries, making blockchain an alternative mechanism to solving the age-old problems of provenance and quality. What information is stored in a blockchain could be the historical location of a good, who produced it, how it has been stored, and who has finance on the goods.

Supply chain information extends beyond a single supply chain. To produce a complex product involves first mining raw materials, transforming those into intermediate parts, before manufacturing of the final good. Blockchains are critical here because they can track goods and components across multiple supply chains, giving more visibility and traceability deeper into complex manufactured goods.

Blockchain supply chains will leverage other frontier technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT). Containers and products will contain sensors to record information such as GPS location and temperature. This information won’t be sent to a centralised party, but recorded cryptographically into a blockchain. This information can help consumers in verifying genuine products, assist producers in creating analytics of consumer demand and ensuring their inputs are legitimate, and governments in ensuring compliance with domestic rules and regulations.

The first and most obvious application of blockchain in supply chains has been in agricultural products such as wine, meat and seafood. The common characteristic of these goods is that they are information-rich. Information about their provenance and stewardship is often hard to verify by observing the final goods, but radically affects the price that consumers will pay.

This means the next wave of applications is likely to be other high-value information-high goods. Goods that are highly-customised, such as 3D printed medical devices, aeroplane parts and pharmaceuticals, are perfectly poised to apply blockchain technology.

Blockchain in advanced manufacturing is more than just tracking goods once they’ve been produced. We can use blockchains to coordinate the highly valuable digital files that sit behind many of these products. How can you ensure that the CAD file being 3D printed was the one originally intended? Similarly, blockchains are being used for intellectual property rights, helping to ensure compliance in an increasingly digital world.

In the physical manufacturing process itself blockchain can be used to record information about the lifecycle of manufacturing equipment. We can now have more cost-efficient and credible auditable ledgers that extend beyond organisational hierarchies.

What we have proposed here is a general movement away from intermediaries being trusted to maintain information about goods and their production, towards information governance through decentralised blockchain platforms. To be sure, many of these applications are in the trial and experimental phase. But they represent an early fundamental shift in how we organise information across the entire manufacturing supply chain.

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