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Blockchain Manufacturing Model Described

Chart: Blockchain in manufacturing

Click on image for full-size view (N. Hanacek/NIST)

12 Feb. 2019. A report from the U.S. government’s standards agency offers a model for using blockchain, a distributed transaction process, to secure transmissions in smart manufacturing systems. National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, in Gaithersburg, Maryland released its report and model yesterday. NIST is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The report describes a reference model — a standardized framework for identifying entities and relationships in a complex system — for using blockchain in a smart manufacturing environment. In this world, companies in the supply chain are distributed and often distant, and the parties rely on electronic communications to coordinate parts production and delivery, with robotics and additive manufacturing, the industrial form of 3-D printing, creating the final products. In addition, those products are often customized for highly specialized markets and even individual customers.

Guiding this smart manufacturing environment is what NIST calls a digital thread, a chain of information about a product from design through manufacturing with the product’s specifications. In pre-digital days, blueprints often provided that information, but because different parties are called on to design the product, produce and deliver components, then create and ship the final product, the digital thread must now be the trusted authoritative source throughout the process. But this complex and distributed digital thread is also susceptible to error, corruption, or hacking that threaten catastrophic consequences and undermine the trust needed to make smart manufacturing work.

The team from NIST’s Engineering Laboratory, led by Sylvère Krima, a computer scientist now with the product data consulting company Engisis in Rome, investigated blockchain as a way to secure the digital thread in smart manufacturing. Blockchain is a system for capturing data about a transaction in a network, but with the data distributed among the various parties to the transaction. Data about the transaction are broken up into blocks, with each block connected in a chain. Each block is also time-stamped and encrypted with an algorithm giving it a unique identifier or fingerprint, also linked mathematically to the previous block in the chain. This linking of uniquely identified and encrypted blocks in the chain ensures the integrity of the data, as well as protects the data from hacking.

In the report, Krima and colleagues identify the main threats to digital manufacturing threads as data theft, a continuing problem particularly with valuable intellectual property, and corruption or sabotage of electronic specifications. The authors then describe how blockchain can protect against these threats. The reference model itself is written in the Unified Modeling Language, a standardized computer modeling vocabulary.

Co-author and research engineer Thomas Hedberg notes in a NIST statement, “[W]e 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. 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.”

NIST says some 30 companies and universities are taking part in a “community of interest” investigating blockchain’s use in manufacturing, but the agency is looking for more collaborators to advance the technology.

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