The end of 2017 saw the rise of cryptocurrencies as the value of the market soared. Renewed interest in blockchain technology swiftly followed, more than 10 years after it first gained popularity in the finance industry. However, blockchain is more than cryptocurrency and has the potential to be used in many other sectors where the risks of implementation and impact on customer trust are not as high as with financial services.

To really unlock blockchain’s full potential, a different way of thinking and an innovative and agile approach is needed. Rather than pigeonholing the technology to only apply to financial transactions, business leaders in the manufacturing industry can exploit the inherent characteristics of blockchain to address areas which have historically been barriers to digital progress. This includes blockchain’s inherent security and inability for any of the content to be altered once it has been validated and stored in a block, and the decentralised processing that facilitates collaboration and transparency.

Blockchain technology can extend beyond an organisation to include its partners, customers and supply chains, offering more opportunities for collaboration outside of a company’s ecosystem. The distributed ledger means that a single version of the document is used and can help ensure that activity is visible to everyone. Equal access is enjoyed by each party, so that there is a reduced chance of data being hidden or manipulated, as no one party has full control over the database.

Embracing the ‘Outcome Economy’

Manufacturers are starting to shift their focus from building products and parts with a volume focus, to creating valuable outcomes. This is the emergence of the ‘outcome economy’ which is set to revolutionise business models and create an artisanal subsector of micro-factories to support larger operations. However, legacy siloes which prevent collaboration, lagging digitisation and slow adoption of new technology has the potential to impair progress. Blockchain could be the answer to facilitating this shift by providing a trustworthy and high-quality source of transactional information for smaller factories and suppliers. In addition, a manufacturer’s ability to ensure the quality of products within its supply chain is crucial. This immutable ledger will confirm that the product has been made through the right process and with the right materials, as well as provide certification against that process. Records of serial numbers against that process also provide an additional layer of verification.

Taking Digital Transformation to the next level

Digital transformation has been a slow process for manufacturers, but they can no longer afford to ignore the benefits that digitisation brings in terms of efficiency, productivity and agility. By leveraging data collected from devices and machinery, critical insights can be utilised to make improvements to processes and productions resulting in significant savings. This ultimately helps manufacturers provide a better service to customers and partners, allowing them to pull ahead of their competitors.

Incorporating blockchain technology will add another dimension to the ongoing digital transformation. Expensive machinery can move towards a pay-per-use model on the completion of value-added work, therefore organisations can adapt quickly by avoiding the initial investment and large capital expense. The equipment providers will earn additional revenues through continuous use in the factories they have equipment deployed.

Securing the future of autonomous cars

Security concerns over the potential hacking of connected cars have been detrimental to continued development in the automotive industry. The more connected a car is, the greater the attack surface area. Many of these concerns can be addressed by using blockchain. As there is no way to manipulate or alter data in a block once it has been stored and a layer of encryption is added to each transaction, this natural security makes it almost impossible for malicious actors to hack. However, this encryption does not come without challenges. Processing time is the limiting factor, so careful consideration is needed for real-world applications. Where speed is not a crucial factor, such as for car insurance premiums, car sharing services or information about the vehicle’s condition, are all ideal candidates for blockchain. This information needs to be kept secure and protected from manipulation, but not adversely affected by lengthy encryption times. In contrast, where autonomous vehicles communicate with infrastructure and other vehicles the information must be transmitted and verified in microseconds, so blockchain technology would not be appropriate.

Additive manufacturing and intellectual property

The 3D printing industry is just one example of where IP theft is a real concern. Files with designs are normally transferred to vendors and their printing machines via traditional means, which leaves designers vulnerable to theft. To counteract this, the blockchain system creates an automatic audit trail which enables users to track the appropriate use of the 3D model, the materials used in the process and finally the product serial number to certify its incorporation into the products.

Re-thinking blockchain

As the industry landscapes change, it’s time to rethink blockchain and how it can be used to improve the quality of transactions. It will thrive in areas where risks are lower and offer an additional layer of security to processes where this is a top concern. However, before organisations embrace blockchain, significant work needs to be done with the technology itself before widespread adoption is realised. There will be a challenge associated with certification and the regulation industry will have to catch up to using blockchain to certify products.

The time and cost investment involved in the initial set up will be prohibitive to some businesses and greatly outweigh the associated benefits. Also, there must be a concurrent cultural shift within an organisation to ensure an endorsement by end users. However, by ensuring continuous quality is weaved in from the very start of a project– from requirements validation through to business as usual – the level of risk can be reduced, and as the technology is being continually improved, business leaders should consider how this technology will make a positive difference to their organisation.