Lord of the data: How the Blockchain ensures smart production processes

Digitalisation and industry 4.0 | future of production | innovation | trends of technology | Blockchain? Doesn't that have something to do with Bitcoin? Not in this case. We are in the TechCenter Additive Manufacturing in Mülheim. In a live demonstration, thyssenkrupp and IBM show us why the blockchain process could help industrial 3D printing achieve a breakthrough.

It was already a sprint. Four to be precise. Now the time has come for the agile team of Blockchain specialists, IT developers, designers and engineers to show what they have been working on for the past eight weeks in a time-limited project step (“sprints”): the final presentation to the customers at thyssenkrupp’s TechCenter Additive Manufacturing. The key question is how the highly sensitive data from component production can be exchanged in such a way that the intellectual property of the companies involved remains protected at all times. The industrial customer “Siggi”, development engineer “Peter” and printing service provider “Anita” provide insights into this process – fictitious characters with the help of which the team of experts explains how a first customer inquiry can be turned into a secure print job that is transparent to all sides.

A component made by a 3D printer A team of thyssenkrupp and IBM specialists has combined two technologies for the first time: International Data Space (IDS) and Blockchain. With these technologies, companies can safely share their data in an autonomous way, for example when they use additive manufacturing.

“The global exchange of data, including strictly confidential information such as design files, is becoming increasingly important in industrial production,” explains Dr. Joachim Stumpfe, innovation expert at thyssenkrupp. One example of this is additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. With the help of this technology, complex plastic or metal components for industrial use can be produced precisely, quickly and in a highly efficient manner. Instead of sending the parts themselves, the process simply sends data around the world. In this way, it decouples development from production. In the Mülheim TechCenter, for example, the team develops a single aircraft component which can then be produced by a print hub anywhere in the world.

Well-protected in dataspace

In order to involve subcontractors like Anita in industrial 3D printing, companies must be prepared to share their data. The prerequisite: manufacturers and developers can be sure that their valuable intellectual property will not fall into the wrong hands in the widely ramified global network. “This is not just about security, but about data sovereignty,” explains thyssenkrupp board member Dr. Donatus Kaufmann. “We want to provide our customers with a platform with which they can remain in control of their data at all times in the process. Each user must be able to determine for himself who can view and process which data – and for how long. At the same time, it must be transparent at all times when and by whom changes were made.

With these requirements in mind, a team of thyssenkrupp and IBM specialists has combined two technologies for the first time: International Data Space (IDS) and Blockchain.

IDS and Blockchain: with the logbook in the tap-proof room

In 2015, 40 companies and 12 Fraunhofer Institutes joined forces to facilitate digital exchange in industry. The result is the IDS, a protected space for data exchange. Sensitive information does not migrate to an external cloud but is exchanged “peer-to-peer” between authorized partners via so-called IDS connectors and only for the respective purpose. Today, almost 100 companies support the IDS, which guarantees data sovereignty and thus the protection of intellectual property: Data is only exchanged if it is requested and released by trustworthy, certified partners.

Companies can share their data without having to worry that they might get into the wrong hands. Using IDS and Blockchain, companies can share their data without having to worry that they might get into the wrong hands.

In conjunction with the blockchain, the process also becomes more transparent. The technology functions like an electronic logbook that is kept in parallel on the computers of all parties involved. This records all actions, such as sending design data or starting production of the 3D printer. Each change is written to all copies of the logbook (also called “Distributed Ledger”) in such a way that it cannot be changed afterwards. This is also important here: Not everyone can see everything. For example, the customer has no insight into the print service provider’s process data, because the print service provider coordinates this directly with his contact person in the TechCenter. Once the print job has been completed, a thyssenkrupp engineer checks the result and logs in the final step with his approval: the component is sent to the customer.


IDS and Blockchain: a dream couple ready for practice

In the TechCenter Mülheim, the team demonstrates the data ping pong on different screens. The spectators can see how chat processes are documented on the platform and how process data is encrypted. “Blockchain technology brings transparency and traceability – a perfect complement to IDS with its secure transmission paths,” summarizes team member Sarah Wiederkehr from IBM. The result of the live demonstration, a white plastic cube, builds up layer by layer in front of the audience. The “proof of concept” has been delivered.

Complex plastic or metal components for industrial use can be produced precisely, quickly and highly efficiently. Instead of the parts themselves, the process only sends data around the world.

And what happens now? “Once it’s clear that the concept works in principle, it’s time for the pilot phase,” announces Joachim Stumpfe. There are various areas at thyssenkrupp that have already expressed interest. Because one thing is clear: exchanging data securely and confidently is the key to success in global production chains. Meanwhile, the project team is stowing away the laptops in Mülheim. Siggi, Peter and Anita are ready for the next sprint.

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