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New kids on the blockchain

March 22, 2018

Blockchain sounds like the name of some 90s grunge band.

If you haven’t yet heard about the wonders of blockchain in manufacturing, you’re likely imprisoned in some dank, remote cell.

Smart Industry's Chris McNamara

Chained to a block, perhaps.

In our buzzword-celebrating culture, few concepts have taken off like blockchain, that living list of records (or blocks) that are linked and secured using cryptography. The appeal of blockchain is that the data within each block cannot be modified, enabling extended transactions between stakeholders to be chronicled in a transparent, verifiable manner. And while blockchain has historically been linked to cryptocurrencies, having been invented to regulate bitcoin transactions, it has in recent years expanded into the realm of manufacturing.

That’s where things get interesting for us.

As relationships between smart industrial components within networks grow more complicated, blockchain is increasingly relied upon to chronicle each step and enable visibility into all of the moving parts. This is a good thing. This is a necessary thing—a digital governor of processes that can grow very complex very quickly.

By its very nature blockchain is a collaborative tool that enables deeper insight into data. It demands and rewards transparency. These elements are at the core of smart manufacturing, no? Every comment/change/addition within a blockchain is recorded and visible to all. We’ve been told to play nice and to show our work since kindergarten—those old edicts are integral to this new technology.

Blockchain is the polar opposite of The Telephone Game, in which children whisper a phrase around a circle and the words, inevitably, get morphed. I tested this out with my brood, whispering “Blockchain will revolutionize the supply chain” into my 8-year-old’s ear. By the time my phrase was repeated back to me, having traveled through three sets of ears/minds/mouths, it had been perverted into “The blost cheese will blossomly block.” (I am unfamiliar with blost cheese, but it sounds delicious.)

Will blockchain wane over time? The hype certainly will; it always does with the latest technological/cultural phenomenon. (Remember the ubiquity of Pokémon GO?) But the use of this tool should only widen, go mainstream and diversify while transmuting into niche applications.

The Slovenians are certainly banking on it. In March they celebrated the unveiling of the world’s first monument to blockchain in the center of a roundabout intersection in the town of Kranj. (Kranj is east of Zgornje Bitnje, as the crowj flies.)

For something so technologically advanced, that name—blockchain—sounds like a tool from a blacksmith’s shop. Or, better yet, it sounds like the name of some 90s grunge band. “I’m going to see Blockchain tonight at The Forum. Rage Against the Machine is opening for them.”

But while the term might be unusual and the concept still a bit nebulous, smart money says blockchain will permanently alter the supply chain and, ultimately, enhance the world of manufacturing.

“Blockchain will evolve similarly to the way that the internet evolved—although at a much faster pace,” wrote Anoop Nannra, Cisco’s head of blockchain initiatives, in a recent Smart Industry Forum post. “As a result, technological advancements will unfold and we’ll see the simplification of discovery, deployment and utility-of-trust systems that employ blockchain, which will lead to a new era of the internet—an internet of value that provides secure value flow across a whole range of industry segments.”

Pop the champagne, early blockchain adopters. And pass the blost cheese.

Chris McNamara is Smart Industry's director of content.