There’s a lot of buzz these days about a new wave of secure electronic transactions, based on cryptocurrencies such as the BitCoin. BitCoins are, in principle, used in electronic transactions like conventional currency such as dollars and euros.
However, they are different from conventional currency in that they are not controlled by a central authority (e.g., a central bank), but rather by a fully decentralized and transparent network.
This is particularly interesting as it suggests an entirely new paradigm for conducting, controlling and verifying digital transactions, which holds the promise to disrupt financial services and interactions.
During the last couple of years, researchers have suggested and validated the use of the decentralized, peer-to-peer bitCoin infrastructure as a means of conducting electronic transactions between systems, devices and machines.
The Internet-of-Things (IoT) community is currently experimenting with this model of electronic transactions with complex applications. These applications involve interactions between a variety of systems and devices, including smart objects and machines deployed in industrial settings and supply chains.
The rationale behind this idea is that the peer-to-peer transactions’ networks can provide the scalability, security, reliability and transparency needed in Industrial IoT applications that involve not only thousands of devices within a plant, but also across the entire supply chain network.
That’s the point where Bitcoins meet industrial maintenance. In order to understand this relationship, let us explore the technology that underpins bitCoins, namely the Blockchain.
Conventional financial or legal transactions involve a trusted third party (TTP) such as a bank or a notary public, which keeps track of all the information about a transaction and ensures its validity.
This is, for example, the case in a wire transfer between two parties: The bank is the trusted entity that keeps a ledger of transactions for the two parties and can, therefore, ensure that the transaction involves no fraud (e.g., the sender possesses the amount to be transferred).
Bitcoin transactions work in a similar way. The main difference is that the ledger is not maintained by a centralized TTP, but rather by numerous distributed parties. Likewise, the trustworthiness of the transaction is not verified by a single TTP, but rather by the majority of the participants.
This provides transparency, decentralized control and increased resilience, as it is practically impossible for a person or a group to hack the network: Hacking a single or a few nodes is not enough to take control, as transactions need to be validated by the majority of the participants in order to be considered legitimate.
The Blockchain is the technology supporting these secure and reliable mechanisms. It is a scalable and secure distributed ledger, which enables logging information (including full history) of the transactions involved. Moreover, it provides the means for auditing “smart contracts” i.e. the rules that govern the peer-to-peer transactions.
Beyond financial transactions, the distributed ledger idea can be used to ensure reliable transactions between systems and smart machines engaging in maintenance or supply chain interactions.
Future equipment will be able to engage in transactions for scheduling maintenance and ordering spare parts in-line with service level agreements (SLAs) between equipment vendors, plant operators, maintenance services providers and other stakeholders.
Blockchain technology provides the perfect vehicle for conducting and controlling these transactions in a way that respects the contracts between the various stakeholders. This can give rise to several uses of the Blockchain in industrial maintenance applications.
Blockchains provide a scalable distributed ledger infrastructure, along with protocols and mechanisms for enforcing smart contracts over transactions logged in the distributed ledger. Blockchain-based maintenance applications model maintenance-related information and transactions as smart contracts, which are accordingly verified and enforced.
Different models and interactions between systems and smart objects can lead to various blockchain applications for industrial maintenance. Some characteristic examples follow:
The distributed ledger can serve as a scalable registry of equipment and assets within an organization. In particular, the blockchain provides a clear benefit for implementing a distributed asset registry, as it provides a single, scalable, synchronized infrastructure. This registry is accessible to all supply chain participants, which obviates the need for each maintenance stakeholder to develop and maintain its own registry instance.
Within this blockchain-enabled registry, full information about each piece of equipment can be provided, including all relevant data (e.g., serial codes, models, technical characteristics), along with full information about the use of the component during its lifetime (e.g., locations and processes where it is deployed, sensor-based information about the conditions of the asset and more).
With this information at hand, a rich set of maintenance applications can be implemented, including predictive maintenance applications that provide information about the expected End-of-Life (EoL) of the asset, recommendations about the assets’ maintenance, early identification of problems or malfunctions and more.
In this way, the blockchain registry can facilitate the implementation of a MaaS (Maintenance-as-a-Service) paradigm.
As a component or an asset travels across different stakeholders in the supply chain (e.g., its manufacturer, warehouses where it is stored, plants where it is used), information and status changes can be recorded within blockchain infrastructures of the various stakeholders.
Likewise, full traceability of the assets can be provided, including a full trace of maintenance activities associated with it. Moreover, real-time tracking of asset status is possible, including instant access to the working conditions for all the assets that are available in a plant.
This can be of great help to maintenance workers and engineers, since it offers them real-time visibility on the status of their assets and the processes where these assets are used. Contrary to conventional traceability approaches that require the development and maintenance of local assets registries across different points in the supply chain, the blockchain approach provides a single entry point to storing and managing traceability information. Hence, stakeholders can deploy traceability at a lower effort and cost.
Based on blockchain technology equipment, vendors can be offered a scalable infrastructure that records information about their products and the way they operate in the different plants. This includes information about their working conditions in different plants and environmental conditions, but also in different processes.
Equipment vendors can then mine this information in order to identify weak points of their products, make “best practice” maintenance recommendations, and suggestions about the optimal use of their products based on their performance in the field.
As part of this use case, the blockchain offers a scalable, decentralized and integrated infrastructure for mining information about all owners/users of plant assets and equipment, rather than collecting and storing information on a centralized cloud infrastructure. This is a significant benefit for a machine vendor with thousands of machines worldwide, which needs to handle billions of sensors measurements and maintenance-related transactions worldwide, since the feature can increase resilience and lower integration costs.
A blockchain can store and manage information about maintenance-related transactions, including transactions across smart machines, IT systems and business information systems. As a prominent example, smart machines that discover the optimal point in time for their maintenance can rely on blockchain technology in order to log and validate orders for spare parts and scheduling of appointments with maintenance technicians.
Relevant transactions can be performed in a scalable and secure way, which respects established SLAs (i.e. “smart contracts”) between systems (i.e. asset management, ERP) of stakeholders in the maintenance chain, such as machine vendors, plant operators, equipment maintenance experts and others.
Instead of storing and mining the status of assets, it is also possible to store the rules that are driving asset maintenance, in line with their use in industrial processes. These rules can be also based on smart contracts and could reflect the agreements between different maintenance stakeholders.
In this instance, the use of the blockchain is not focused on the reliable and secure storage of data about assets and their M2M (Machine-to-Machine) interactions, but rather on the trustworthy and reliable management of the business rules that drive the maintenance processes.
These are only a few of possible areas blockchain technology can be used for industrial maintenance. As blockchain technology matures and implementations become available, we expect the blockchain to become an enabler for novel applications based on decentralized control and availability of full information about the assets that are maintained.
Furthermore, a blending of financial transactions’ related functionality (e.g., use of bitcoins for obtaining or printing a spare part) will take place. Under this prism, the blockchain should not be seen as a unique maintenance application, but rather as an enabler of a whole new range of business models and paradigms for industrial maintenance.
Even though the above use cases are promising, their implementation is still in its infancy. Several challenges need to be addressed, including the development of multiple security layers and scalability challenges in supporting millions of devices and billions of transactions. Another challenge is the design and implementation of the consensus mechanisms that are necessary to validate the various transactions in the decentralized infrastructure.
More importantly, there is still a significant knowledge gap in blockchain technologies, which makes it difficult for innovators to use it in novel ways. This knowledge gap is also a setback against the wider adoption of the technology, as the industrial maintenance ecosystem is still striving to understand how it can be used and comprehend its tangible benefits.
Nevertheless, the first implementation instances of blockchain-based maintenance applications are emerging. In one of these early initiatives, IBM and Lufthansa Industry Solutions have launched the Blockchain for Aviation (BC4A) project, which concerns the use of Blockchain for reliable and transparent maintenance operations.
BC4A brings together various maintenance applications stakeholders, including e-software developers, aircraft manufacturers, MRO (Maintenance and Repair Operations) service providers, logistics providers, and civil aviation regulators.
Such maintenance use cases can be supported based on a range of available infrastructures for building blockchain networks, such as:
These infrastructures and projects are typically the starting point of every new project. The main challenge lies in the inception of innovative ways in using the blockchain for maintenance, rather than any limitations of technical implementation.