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:
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.