When additive manufacturing re-emerged as a viable technology about ten years ago, the buzz focused on what would be the “killer app” that would make it must have equipment in any engineers’ toolbox.
So far, the aerospace industries and many of the medical industries have found plenty of reasons to use additive technologies. But this technology is not in everyone’s toolbox yet.
What if the path to that killer app involves combining additive with a couple of other emerging technologies–the IoT and blockchain? This is an interesting idea being discussed in some technology circles.
Blockchain is a transactional infrastructure. It’s basically a decentralized, distributed, and highly secure digital ledger anyone can use to record transactions. While both parties may have copies of their transactions, the blockchain prevents anyone from altering them. Thus, proponents claim blockchain is incorruptible, promising integrity for parties who may not know each other, let along trust each other. Ironically, blockchain arose out of needs for security and privacy with the digital currency Bitcoin.
Used in other industries, though, blockchain provides a safe alternative to other data transaction and storage offerings.
Proponents of blockchain believe that when combined with the IoT and additive manufacturing, manufacturing will be decoupled from geography. You will be able to send design files anywhere in the world and have items additively made at a nearby location and your intellectual property will remain secure.
Currently, blockchain projects exist in finance, customs processing, risk management and even cryptographic traceability. Proponents think the next project will be global trade. When this happens, they predict a realignment of global economic power as on-demand production is decentralized, i.e., supply-chain disruption.
Of course, much work needs to be done to achieve this vision. IoT technology, like additive technology, is still facing acceptance issues. Where is the data that proves IoT delivers greater efficiencies in manufacturing; finding areas that can be tweaked to shave off seconds of production time or reduce scrap? Where is the data that proves a resin-like material delivers the strength, heat resistance, elongation breaks or other mechanical feature a design needs?
And even blockchain must still prove its usefulness. Blockchain is at the point both IoT and additive manufacturing have been—at the hype phase. That’s not necessarily a bad place to be. As the recent history of additive technology shows, this can be the place for a great deal of investment, which can lead to technological advances.
But the vision is intriguing. Additive technology already has a number of service providers around the world who can take a CAD file and create parts for others, and deliver those parts either locally or globally.
Who knows where IoT analytics will affect manufacturing processes and supply chains, taking out areas of inefficiency and reducing costs.
And once there’s a format to safely and securely track orders, changes, deliveries, and any other transactions, everything opens up for greater collaboration, and potentially for solving more complex problems.