Is Additive Manufacturing ready for Blockchain?

Image via xresch of Pixabay

Three years ago, the integration of blockchain in additive manufacturing processes was an idea that professionals had not studied yet in-depth. In 2018, companies really started sharing the first applications of Blockchain in additive manufacturing processes. However, so far, the concept remains vague and uncertain for additive manufacturing operators. Hopefully, this article will remove these uncertainties.

Blockchain is seen as a chain of records stored in the forms of blocks that no authority controls. The first link with additive manufacturing is that, blockchain is resistant to data modification. It is an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a permanent way.

While blockchain is mostly known in the financial world, enthusiasts are also trying to determine its potential in the AM industry. They believe that it can make additive manufacturing more accessible to industrial and supply chain managers around the world on the one hand, on the other hand, it can solve the problem of data storage for complex and certified parts. In other terms, to add value to the “digital thread”.

What’s that digital thread?

According to an analysis of Deloitte on “3D Printing opportunities for blockchain”, “for AM processes to scale at the industrial level, a series of complex, connected, and data-driven events likely needs to occur. In this way, successfully deploying AM is less a physical- or hardware-associated production challenge and more a data- or records-management one. This is referred to as the digital thread for additive manufacturing (DTAM)”.

The digital thread can therefore be considered as this crucial box “that carries information” throughout the manufacturing process. Such information are data of the design, modeling, production, validation, use, and monitoring of a manufactured part.

The ability to exploit data as well as to manage intense computing demands, allows manufacturers to scale AM production.

When does blockchain come into play?

One essential use of AM among 3D printing service bureaus suggests to implement a distributed model across a number of partners around the world. This AM supply chain is only possible thanks to the transmission of data and interconnectivity.

In that sense, the DTAM includes other technologies such as topology optimization and advanced Multiphysics modeling to enable true product innovation.

In the same way that the DTAM supports both supply chain scale and product innovation, the blockchain for AM has the potential to serve as a backbone and security layer for the DTAM, underpinning all of the transactions that occur throughout the digital and physical life cycle for AM”, explained analysts from Deloitte. It really looks like a chain of trust between stakeholders.

The chain of trust and its advantages

A group of scientists that published the study, “Intellectual Property Protection and Licensing of 3D Print with Blockchain Technology,” explained that a license can be issued to specific users to print a certain number of parts. Speaking of “Chain of Trust” between several parties including trusted printers, copyright holders and service providers, they explained that such type of process is built from the development of digital 3D data to the labeling of 3D printed components with RFID chips.

In other terms, if everyone in the database, uses the same blockchain database, it would drastically improve transparency at the global level in the AM network.

The concept of trust also lays emphasis on a certain validation of a given 3D printing technology. Let’s take the example of GE Additive, a company that leverages blockchain in its AM processes: 

When a third-party reproduces a replacement part for an industrial player, end users cannot verify whether the replacement part “was produced using a correct build file, using correct manufacturing media, and on a properly configured additive manufacturing device.”

For GE, “It would therefore be desirable to provide systems and methods for implementing a historical data record of an additive manufacturing process with verification and validation capabilities that may be integrated into additive manufacturing devices.”

However, this concept of trust between parties is controversial. While researchers talk about building trust between stakeholders, the audit firm Deloitte explains that trust still needs to be strengthened. For the auditing firm, the blockchain technology does not eliminate the need for trust between parties. “It replaces the existing mechanism for gaining trust (bank, escrow, and so on) with cryptography, and maintaining that trust is not cost-free. The method via which trust is achieved is called the consensus mechanism, and the cost is referred to as the incentive structure—how the maintenance of trust is sustained. These are the two fundamental pillars of blockchain, referred to as the consensus mechanism, and an incentive structure to sustain the expenditure of effort for that validation to take place and continue. The exact features of those two elements are tailorable across different ecosystems, but the success of the protocol often depends on those two foundations.”

Security, obviously 

It seems obvious, but remains important to mention. Once the chain of trust is installed, partners can evolve in an extremely secured database. Such type environments require the use of cryptography for validation of transactions which offer protection against risks of unauthorized data access. Military applications for instance, require a maximum security.  The US Navy uses the blockchain technology to exchange 3D files in a safe way. The good news is, data are encrypted, which removes any risk of hacking. The bad news is that every action is irreversible. Actions can’t be modified or deleted.

Getting faster

Another advantage that derives from this chain of trust is speed. In AM, one advantage that manufacturers use to highlight is that, once a part is designed and the 3D file ready, it can be reproducible on a wide range of manufacturing systems. With the integration of blockchain, this advantage is even blatant. Indeed, since there is no need for data mining, manufacturing processes are nearly instantaneous.

This being said, this argument can also be seen at a global level. Companies increasingly implement distributed networks of 3D printers. Blockchain remains the ideal common thread of these 3D printers as the technology enables to connect several 3D Printers.

Where is the market?

The use of blockchain in the AM industry is still nascent. The technology itself has evolved because, it was firstly used in the financial world.

However, despite this progression, only five companies out of twenty in the AM industry can effectively say they take advantage of this technology. For now, these companies do not see other advantages rather than the ones mentioned above.

That’s a good point to the extent that companies still have time to make up for it. However, it can also be seen as a limitation and the blockchain could be labelled as a technology that does not have any future.  

So, in order to reply to the very first question, let’s say, additive manufacturing does seem ready to integrate the blockchain technology, but that wasn’t maybe the good question to ask. The good question would have been to know if AM operators are ready for integrating blockchain.

This exclusive feature has first been published in the 2019 June issue of 3D ADEPT Mag.