Blockchain: A Tool for Enhancing Smart Manufacturing
Jeffrey Heimgartner posted on February 27, 2019 |

As more manufacturers move toward smart manufacturing, something they were once reluctant to do, the issue of security has taken center stage in the evolution. Engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently published a report that promotes a solution: blockchain.

Blockchain is a technology more widely known for its use in Bitcoin and other digital currencies for the tamper-resistant transfer of data. That alone is beneficial to the manufacturing world, but it also allows for traceability of data throughout a production process.

“Because blockchain gives us both capabilities, we can build trustworthiness into digital manufacturing networks,” said Thomas Hedberg, NIST mechanical engineer and one of the authors of the report.

Blockchain technology could help deter digital threats in smart manufacturing systems. (Image courtesy of N. Hanacek/NIST.)
Blockchain technology could help deter digital threats in smart manufacturing systems. (Image courtesy of N. Hanacek/NIST.)

Blockchain has been around for about a decade. It is essentially a list of records, similar to a ledger, that reflects data for individual transactions. Every block of data includes a time stamp, cryptographic hash and the previous block’s hash, which creates a chain of transactions all linked to an original block. With this connection, any alteration of the data changes subsequent blocks and creates an alert that it was tampered with.

In manufacturing, instead of having 2D blueprints of a product’s lifecycle, blockchain provides a 3D digital thread of instructions that are electronically communicated in chronological order throughout the process. This eliminates the need for human interpretation, translation or data transfer, which equals saved time and money.

“If I’m a manufacturer making a part for a product and I receive the specs for that part from the designer who’s upstream in the process, blockchain ensures that I can trust the data actually came from that person, is exactly what he or she sent and was not interfered with during transmission,” said Sylvere Krima, NIST research associate, computer scientist and lead author of the new report. “Because the chain is tamper resistant and the blocks are time stamped, a blockchain is a robust solution to authenticate data at any point during the product lifecycle.”

While this can make the process easier, some may still be worried about security. According to the team’s report, blockchain is a solid line of defense against data theft, tampering and corruption.

“For instance, we give the example of product data being sent by a designer to one manufacturer who then must transmit updated data to a second manufacturer for further product processing,” Hedberg said. “If a data thief, someone we call a ‘bad actor,’ grabs the file from Manufacturer 1 and attempts to send Manufacturer 2 a fake data file to cover his crime, Manufacturer 2 will know something’s wrong because the true file’s blockchain fingerprint won’t be there.”

The team’s report also lays out Unified Modeling Language (UML) codes and statements required for a blockchain to correctly work in a smart manufacturing system. This reference information can help users authenticate their blocks, including, according to Krima, “where are the data coming from and going to, who is executing the data exchanges, when are the exchanges taking place, what is being exchanged and how are the exchanges being conducted.”

While the team’s report may pave a new inroad for manufacturers, its true potential won’t be known until more organizations begin using it. NIST is seeking potential collaborators, both industrial and academic, to promote the technology’s use.

For more on the impact of blockchain in manufacturing, check out The End of Trust? The Advent of Blockchain in Manufacturing

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