Is Blockchain Coming to Manufacturing?

Chances are you’ve been hearing the term blockchain quite a bit over the past year or so. In a recent Automation World article exploring ways to strengthen supply chain operations, senior editor Stephanie Neil explained blockchain technology as being “an unalterable peer-to-peer recordkeeping system that enables communities to securely record and share information. Blockchain is best known as the core component of the digital currency Bitcoin. Each validated Bitcoin transaction creates a block, which attaches to the chain of blocks before it, thereby creating an easy-to-follow trail.”

With Bitcoin at its root, there is certain to be no small amount of trepidation around blockchain’s use in industry. The significant upside the technology presents, however, certainly bears out further investigation. And that’s why Wipro, a global information technology, consulting and business process services company, has developed nine blockchain-based offerings, four of which are directly targeted at manufacturing. Wipro says these new offerings have been “defined, designed and co-developed with clients in Wipro’s Blockchain Innovation Lab” to demonstrate what blockchain can accomplish for global enterprises.

Considering Wipro’s preference for referring to its blockchain offerings as solutions, I asked Sanjeev Ramakrishnan, general manager and business unit leader at Wipro, to clarify whether these blockchain “solutions” are products, services or a combination of the two. He responded, “All of Wipro’s blockchain solutions include blueprints for domain-specific use case; the solution architecture; the code base, which can be customized and integrated; and full solution documentation,” in addition to access to Wipro’s cloud-based lab and in-house experts.

The four offerings targeted at manufacturing address anti-counterfeiting, airworthiness certificate tracking, supply chain visibility and additive manufacturing/3D printing. According to Ramakrishnan, “The benefits of these solutions include improved process efficiency, optimized costs and the ability to foster innovative business models.”

Explaining how Wipro’s blockchain offerings work for clients, Ramakrishnan noted that, by interacting with the blockchain environments in Wipro’s cloud-based lab, “clients are able to fast-track the development of blockchain solutions by leveraging pre-defined use-case blueprints and ready-to-use solutions. Along with the lab, clients have access to Wipro’s domain experts, technology specialists, proprietary tools and process assets to jump-start their blockchain journey. The lab hosts technology platforms from Wipro’s partner ecosystem, which includes blockchain platform providers, blockchain application providers and technology providers who specialize in specific blockchain use cases.”

Looking at the four offerings targeted at manufacturing, Ramakrishnan noted the key aspects of each.

This blockchain offering is designed to address the issue that 7-8 percent of global trade is comprised of counterfeit/pirated goods. “Since there is no reliable way to verify and validate the products and services in the supply chain, this lack of visibility can lead to counterfeiting causing reputation, health and safety risks,” Ramakrishnan said.

With Wipro’s anti-counterfeiting blockchain offering, each product is registered on the blockchain registry with a unique ID and key attributes. Each supply chain partner updates the status (attributes) of the item as it traverses from point of manufacture to point of sale. Products are scanned for authenticity at each point, from manufacture to sale, and originality is checked based on matching of key attributes and ID tracking.

Having this level of documentation “protects brand reputation by preventing counterfeits from reaching the point of sale,” Ramakrishnan said. It also provides transparency in that the offering’s distributed ledger enables all parties in the supply chain to access information about the product’s journey. In addition, it offers traceability to detect diverted goods and stolen merchandise and reduces risks by reducing health and safety exposure created by fake products.

Ramakrishnan said the only pre-requisite required of a client to use this offering is “Internet connectivity at all the nodes in the supply chain along with barcoded/QR-coded shipment transactions.”

Though he was not able to divulge the company’s name, Ramakrishnan said that Wipro currently has a fast-moving consumer goods client using this anti-counterfeiting blockchain offering. The company was “facing a significant loss of revenue—15-20 percent of total sales revenue—and brand reputation due to counterfeit goods in an Asian country. They also wanted to provide consumers the ability to verify the authenticity of any product they select in stores.”

In adapting the anti-counterfeiting blockchain offering for this customer, Ramakrishnan said that Wipro worked with the client to determine the participants who will use the system and created separate interfaces for each of them. A data model and business logic were created to verify whether a product is genuine or counterfeit. This enables information on the product to be available to the customer at the point of sale.

Airworthiness certificates
In the aerospace industry, parts suppliers must obtain an airworthiness certificate to conform to the quality compliance mandated by authorities. These certificates and their related shipments must be tracked throughout the life of the airplane. Ramakrishnan believes the biggest challenges in the current airworthiness certificate system that blockchain can address involve storing and securing the digital assets at every level of the supply chain.

In Wipro’s airworthiness blockchain offering, all parties in the entire supply chain form one blockchain private network, meaning that digital assets like FAA form 8130 are updated and shared across the system. All airline parts are tracked through the manufacturing lifecycle of the airplane and smart contracts are used to facilitate maintenance and repair of faulty parts.

With Bitcoin at its root, there is certain to be no small amount of trepidation around blockchain’s use in industry. The significant upside the technology presents, however, certainly bears out further investigation.

This level of traceability provides an automatic audit trail enabling anyone in the chain to track and trace the state of an asset. “It also prevents counterfeiting as it ensures that each part being used in manufacturing comes from a genuine partner,” Ramakrishnan said. “The shared ledger ensures a tamper-proof and reliable version of data is available for all participants.”

As with the anti-counterfeiting blockchain offering, Ramakrishnan said users only need Internet connectivity at all the nodes in the supply chain along with barcoded/QR-coded shipment transactions to apply the airworthiness blockchain offering.

Referencing a global aircraft manufacturer using Wipro’s airworthiness blockchain system, Ramakrishnan said this client turned to Wipro to address the challenges the company faced “managing and auditing their aircraft part suppliers as part of the quality assurance processes. The system they had been using to track the parts was comprised of several software packages like enterprise resource planning (ERP) and maintenance repair and operations (MRO), as well as custom solutions. All of these systems operated in siloes, posing challenges in tracking and providing a unified, single source of truth of the airworthiness certificate associated with each part used to build an aircraft.”

Supply chain
Wipro sees the supply chain as the connecting thread between where goods are produced and distributed and stretching into a vast network of channel partners. This connecting thread involves managing contracts, payments, labeling, sealing and logistics, as well as anti-counterfeit and anti-fraud processes. “The scale and complexity of the systems involved leads to high transactional costs, frequent mismatches and errors in manual paperwork,” Ramakrishnan explained. “It can also lead to losses through degradation and theft along the way, as well as issues such as abusive or unsafe working conditions, environmental damage, illegal production processes, and forgery and imitation through poor supply chain management.”

Wipro’s blockchain infrastructure for supply chains addresses registering, certifying and tracking goods being transferred between distant parties who are connected via a supply chain. “All goods uniquely identified via tokens are transferred via the blockchain, with each transaction verified and time-stamped in an encrypted transparent process,” Ramakrishnan said, adding that smart contracts can also be deployed for logistics, payments and inventory management.

Like the anti-counterfeiting and airworthiness blockchain offerings noted above, users only need Internet connectivity at all nodes in the supply chain along with barcoded/QR-coded shipment transactions to apply the supply chain blockchain offering.

Ramakrishnan said the transparency and traceability provided by the supply chain blockchain system gives the relevant parties transparent access, whether they are suppliers, vendors, transporters or buyers. The blockchain’s secure network also means that “the terms of every transaction remain irrevocable and immutable, open to inspection to authorized stakeholders,” he said. “The high visibility provided by this system also enables problems to be detected early in the supply chain and eliminates human intervention in making complex supply chain decisions to speed up the overall supply chain.”

Additive manufacturing/3D printing
The increasing use of additive manufacturing across the production industries requires 3D model files to be shared with 3D printing vendors and their 3D printing machines. “Since these 3D model files are shared using conventional file-sharing methodologies, there is a high risk of IP theft,” Ramakrishnan said. He added that “tracking use of the 3D model files per contracted quantity is also challenging since this is typically done manually.”

With Wipro’s blockchain system for additive manufacturing, the 3D model file is shared using secure blockchain technology, which also identifies and verifies the 3D printing vendor and 3D printing machines.

The key prerequisite for users of this blockchain system are Internet connectivity to the 3D printing machines and readable data from the 3D printing machine.

The additive manufacturing blockchain system provides an automatic audit trail enabling users to track and trace the state of an asset, which also helps prevent IP theft. Smart contracts maintain logs of 3D printing use per contracted quantity.

The blockchain potential
Don and Alex Tapscott, co-authors of “Blockchain Revolution” and founders of the Blockchain Research Institute are obviously promoters of the blockchain concept. They contend that blockchain technology will take us from the “Internet of Information” to the “Internet of Value.”

According to the Tapscotts, “Blockchain promises to radically simplify many business processes, reducing risk and boosting transparency. That’s a good thing. And this is really the tip of the iceberg: Personal and commercial lending, risk management, investment banking, treasury services, global markets, insurance, technology, operations and asset management will all feel the effect.”