Recently, the specialist media have been constantly repeating the claim that blockchain technology is capable of revolutionizing the Internet as well as every conceivable area of application. This raises the question of what impact this will have on PLM technology. There are indeed many interesting possible applications in the PLM environment, provided that certain serious technical limitations can be overcome.
As we know from the case of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, blockchain technology suffers from a number of technical limitations that make it less suitable for use with data-intensive applications such as PLM or IoT. One of these is the extremely restricted amount of data that can be handled as part of any given transaction. This means, for example, that it is impossible to map complete CAD models in a blockchain. However, the hash code for this file can be mapped in the blockchain. This allows the file to be unambiguously associated with a transaction such as an approval or license transfer. The hash code also ensures that the file is protected against modification.
Another factor is that blockchain implementations such as bitcoin only support relatively simple operations such as transferring a quantity of money from A to B. More complex operations require so-called “smart contracts” of the type used in the blockchain implementation for the cryptocurrency Ethereum. In Ethereum, a smart contract is an executable program that is stored directly in the blockchain. It can contain all types of complex rules for checks and approvals and generate new data entries if the rules are adhered to Thus, for example, as a condition for a monetary transaction, it is possible to specify that person B must possess a certificate or software license that is transferred to A in exchange for the virtual money. This is the approach used by PROSTEP in the Secure Additive Manufacturing Platform (SAMPL) for the secure exchange of 3D printing data.
Both technologies use so-called “data miners” that have to solve a computationally intensive cryptographic problem in order to be able to insert a new block in the block chain. As a result, the transaction speed is very slow and permits no real-time operations of the type needed in the IoT or Industry 4.0 environment. However, secure machine-machine communication cannot be dependent on the speed with which a cryptographic problem is solved. For this reason, there are now more modern approaches such as PoET (proof of elapsed time). These encompass blockchain principles such as sealing a block by the integration of its hash value in the successor block or the principle of “one CPU one vote” (each participating network node has only one vote) without it being necessary to solve a computationally or memory-intensive cryptographic problem in order to make a block entry. Validation is performed using a secured code on an Intel chipset that functions as a random number generator and distributes entry rights to the participating nodes on a random basis.
This approach makes block entries significantly faster and more cost-effective because there is no need to solve cryptographic problems as in traditional blockchain implementations, a task that now accounts for approximately one percent of global energy needs.
Another aspect is the question of access control. For a cryptocurrency, global visibility of all transactions is undoubtedly important and acceptable. In industrial applications, however, the requirements in this regard are rather more stringent since it is frequently undesirable for practically anyone – and therefore also the competition – to be able to read the contents of a transaction.
Instead, what is required is a permissions mechanism that ensures that the contents of transactions can be released as required for specific participants. This option is provided by so-called permissioned blockchains which, unlike their public counterparts such as bitcoin or Ethereum, do not allow all participants to set up nodes and perform transactions, and which support the assignment of write and read permissions to defined segments of the blockchain.
What makes blockchain technology interesting for industrial applications is not so much the security aspect but instead the possibility of handling and bindingly documenting interactions between partners who do not know each other but have to trust one another without the need for a trusted intermediary. This applies to all types of bilateral or multilateral transactions in which the exchanged assets can be digitally represented and, most importantly, secured. Thus, for example, the payment process for a modern truck could generate an entry in the blockchain that represents an approval for use. The truck's control software can then check the blockchain to determine whether the preconditions necessary for it to travel have been satisfied – for example, if it has been paid for, if it is authorized for the region in which it is currently located, etc.
In the context of PLM, blockchains are interesting for everything relating to the legally valid documentation of technical arrangements, in particular if multiple parties are involved in its creation and the result is to be used by machines as the basis for automatically made decisions. A number of German automobile manufacturers are now considering the strategic possibility of documenting the hardware and software configurations of vehicles by means of blockchain. These vehicle configurations will not only become an important property for the purposes of vehicle registration, in particular in the context of autonomous driving, they will also become considerably more volatile than is currently the case. It would, for example, be perfectly conceivable to document the configuration approved for on-road use in a blockchain. When the configuration changes, each individual vehicle could automatically check the blockchain to determine whether it is still approved for on-road use or whether it has to be taken to the dealer’s repair shop for a software update.
There are therefore, a number of different possible blockchain applications in PLM environments. However, it is necessary to consider very carefully which is the most suitable technology for them. The right technology also allows energy requirements to be reduced to a percentage in the per mille range compared to the bitcoin implementation. PROSTEP has already implemented these requirements in its data exchange solution OpenDXM GlobalX and developed an integration using blockchain. OpenDXM GlobalX is now blockchain ready.
PROSTEP will be offering visitors the opportunity to discuss use cases in PLM environments within the framework of a workshop (Blockchain Technology and Potential Use Cases for Product Lifecycle Management) being held at the prostep ivip Symposium.