Solving plant problems with industrial-strength blockchain

Sheila Kennedy examines how remote and predictive maintenance gets a boost via “smart contract” technology.

By Sheila Kennedy, CMRP

The increasingly digitalized industrial space is a prime candidate for deployment of blockchain technology. Operations and maintenance organizations depend on efficient and secure collaboration among trustworthy suppliers and partners. Blockchain replaces human risk factors and paper transactions with a shared, synchronized, tamper-resistant digital database or “distributed ledger” that provides end-to-end encryption, streamlines cross-organizational and cross-border logistics, and improves traceability and accountability. Originally conceived for “smart contracts,” blockchain now has the potential to solve industrial business problems.

Opportunities for industry

Many of today’s supply chains span multiple organizations, tracking systems, and geographic locations, making it hard to track goods or trace the origin of incidents, notes Matthew Kerner, partner general manager for blockchain at Microsoft. “Blockchain dramatically enhances transparency, enabling all parties to trace a product’s journey along the supply chain with a single view of the truth,” Kerner says.

In manufacturing, where much equipment is connected and the internet of things (IoT) is becoming commonplace, solutions like Microsoft’s Azure Blockchain platform have real potential. “With tools like digital shipping notices and RFID scanning, we can track products digitally as soon as they hit the plant floor,” says Kerner. Microsoft’s open-sourced Coco framework was developed to accelerate adoption of enterprise blockchain networks by consortia of enterprises needing confidential computing.

Oracle’s Blockchain Cloud Service is an enterprise-grade distributed ledger platform for sharing data and conducting transactions within and outside the Oracle cloud. “It can be an ideal way to manage product assembly, helping businesses track individual components throughout the manufacturing process and providing a simplified way to identity the point of origin, should there be any concerns or defects,” says Frank Xiong, group vice president of blockchain product development at Oracle.

Xiong adds that as connected devices become more prevalent in industrial environments, blockchain technology can help safeguard the data gathered by these devices, ensuring that data sets and analyses are not altered or compromised.

Shaan Mulchandani, director of security and blockchain lead at Aricent, believes that industrial blockchain applications can “streamline asset inventory, supply-chain functions, and compliance management through shared reads of an immutable, distributed ledger with associated authorized organizations.” The collaborative nature of such applications allows for remote and predictive maintenance with increased accountability, he explains.

In addition, the impact of operational technology (OT) compromises can be lessened as data historians and configuration backups may be distributed and restorable, adds Mulchandani. Consensus-based validation can significantly increase IT-OT security through distributed authorization for updates to control functions and detection of unauthorized devices or human machine interface (HMI) software.

The SAP Leonardo Blockchain Co-Innovation program allows customers and partners to explore potential use cases and business models. For instance, blockchain could significantly speed up manufacturing business processes as it allows for faster transactions (product delivery, quality verification, product labeling, paperwork signoff, etc.) that need to be accessed by multiple parties with high levels of trust and dependency, says Gil Perez, SVP of digital assets and IoT at SAP.

“Further, its ability to track and trace products from inception with a trusted immutability could dramatically reduce supply chain leakage, fraud, and the production of counterfeit or flawed goods,” adds Perez.

Application initiatives

IBM recently announced it is collaborating with a consortium of major food suppliers and retailers to tackle food safety and transparency challenges using the IBM Blockchain Platform. The collaboration “enables participants to exchange data that could include farm origination details, batch numbers, manufacturing and plant processing data, temperature, expiration dates, and shipping details,” says Brigid McDermott, vice president of blockchain at IBM. “This information is digitally recorded on the blockchain,” she adds.

When information is digitally recorded “from farm to fork” and a grower, manufacturer, or retailer becomes aware of an issue, participants can “quickly identify the root of the problem and surgically address it in a manner that is better for consumers and the supply chain,” explains McDermott.

For the distributed, heavily regulated transportation industry, Ericsson developed a rail-use case for its Blockchain Data Integrity service on GE’s Predix platform. It addresses the governance and auditability of remote rail asset installation and maintenance, as well as the integrity of field-service work orders. The microservice ensures that “data captured during field inspections and/or from IoT systems is reliable and consistent, even as it is transferred across systems.”

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