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Ready for the blockchain? Four ways the technology could change global engineering

Amit Katwala

(Credit: iStock)
(Credit: iStock)

Like many inventions that would go on to change the world, the emergence of virtual currency Bitcoin was treated with a large dollop of scepticism.


There were a few curious news articles on technology websites, but few in the wider world took the new development that seriously.

Today, one Bitcoin is worth around £1700, and people are starting to pay attention. But it’s not just the currency itself that could have the most lasting impact – it’s also the technology behind it.

Bitcoin is powered by blockchain technology, a system of distributed online ledgers. Instead of storing information on one computer or server, documents are split across hundreds or thousands of machines. New blocks of data are added to the document in sequence, in linear, chronological order. This means that there’s a permanent record of every version of a file that can’t be tampered with or hacked.

It opens up a world of possibilities, and engineering firms are getting excited. The UK government recently pledged £10m to the Alan Turing Institute to investigate the potential. Companies such as IBM, Toyota, Airbus, Daimler, General Electric and Siemens are also exploring the options for their businesses.

The systems hold “true transformational potential in the manufacturing sector,” says Tag industry analyst Lee Hibbert, former editor of Professional Engineering and the author of a whitepaper on the blockchain’s potential for manufacturing. “The technology could be really powerful in cases where multiple parties share data and these actions need to be recorded.” 

It started as a niche currency, but blockchain could change the world in many ways. For engineers, it could impact on the kind of things they build, or even their entire way of working. “Anywhere where groups of organisations work and transact together and need a transparent ultra-secure database of what they’ve done, that is really where the excitement is coming from,” says Hibbert.

Autonomous vehicles that own themselves

Imagine a world where the self-driving car is king. Already, big companies such as Google, Amazon and Uber are working towards it. They have the resources and expertise required, and stand to gain from the huge financial revenues from moving people around. But in the future, the blockchain could change that. Instead of wealth flowing away from individuals, it could help keep it in the cities.

French firm Mobotiq have developed a concept for a fleet of electronic, autonomous single-passenger pods. These would be crowdfunded by citizens in exchange for tokens, which they could use to buy rides. The pods would be assembled from off the shelf components at local factories.

Using the blockchain, they could operate independently. Instead of a driver choosing whether or not to accept a fair, the individual pod could do it, with the money going back into the system. “It becomes like this independent business unit,” transport pioneer Vince Meens told Professional Engineering. “It’s not owned by a taxi company, it’s fully independent.” Users could buy tokens with cash, or earn them by charging pod batteries in their homes, with the secure blockchain used to keep track of things and ensure the system can’t be cheated.

Transparency and trust in the supply chain

“The need for trust imposes uncertainty, cost and delay, even in ‘virtual value chains’ such as those that enable 3D printing,” suggest the authors of another whitepaper on the blockchain by Cognizant. They argue that using blockchain could slash this ‘trust tax’ to manufacturers and suppliers of verifying their products.

“The blockchain will provide a unique digital product memory for not only the product itself, but also for each part of the product, including the materials used in production and all the quality, design and printing process data,” says another report. “Importantly it will also hold information on the product’s ownership, provenance, authenticity, purchase price and the currency used. All of this information can be protected with crypto-conditions that allow multiple supply chain partners to verify the authenticity and security of a message.”

Consumers will be able to see the history of any product they buy – where all the parts came from, the environmental footprint created. “If you can fully see the story of how and where things came from, would you consume differently?” asks Meens.  

Companies will also be able to track shipments more easily, in a way that can’t be tampered with. Trade and commerce involves reams of paperwork detailing the movement of good around the world, with bills of lading and other documents still largely existing in paper form. But some companies are moving to the blockchain. Maersk, the world’s the largest container shipping company, is working with IBM to help them keep track of their shipments in digital format.

 

Decentralised energy networks

The world – well most of it – seems to be finally waking up to climate change. Despite President Trump’s attitude towards global warming, renewable energy is getting cheaper and better. The blockchain could help by providing the digital infrastructure required to take renewable production off the grid – reducing infrastructure costs in remote areas.

Take Pakistan, for example. A recent study found that its Balochistan region is one of the world’s best places for generating solar power, because of its clear skies and high altitude. But connecting it to the national power grid would be a nightmare because of its remoteness and political situation. 

solar-power

However, with the blockchain, individuals and businesses would be able to install their own solar panels, and buy and sell energy from each other, without the involvement or infrastructure of a central organisation. They would be able to sell excess energy back to the grid, with the blockchain creating a secure record of what had been traded. “There’s not an infrastructure required in the sense of physical wires, because that’s already there,” Chris Goodall, author of The Switch, told Professional Engineering. “What there is a need for information technology which records how much is going out of your system and where it’s being used. Advances in digitalisation are making that easier and easier – we’ll see sales and purchase systems developing. It’s a perfect use of blockchain – highly distributed ledgers. That’s what we’ll eventually end up with – millions and millions of small producers, putting into a network and getting payment and paying via some sort of distributed ledger.”

Smart contracts

It’s 2050. You’re on a rocket ship to Mars, having volunteered to colonise the red planet as part of a privately-funded space exploration trip. There have been promises made, of support when you arrive in the hostile environment, and that your family back on Earth will be taken care of. But how can trust the company that’s sending you? What if they contracts get lost to data problems and they just abandon you?

Well, the blockchain could help with that dilemma. It enables ‘smart contracts,’ which can’t be lost, modified or deleted. In terms of manufacturing, they could be used to determine whether the terms of a contract have been met and trigger payments. A third party could even be used to verify, replacing the need for escrow services.

There’s also an application for intellectual property – a key area of concern for engineers. According to the Technical Associates Group whitepaper, blockchain could be used as a ‘digital vault’ for intellectual property, with little to no cost.

As 3D-printing takes off, product files could be held in the blockchain, and even linked to smart contracts. These could be designed to automatically negotiate terms without the need for a middleman, or even automatically choose the most appropriate supplier based on price, quality and location.

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