The question of blockchain use in manufacturing has been around for a few years with industry executives expressing interest in its potential. In December of 2016, a study published by Deloitte found that 42 percent of manufacturing businesses planned to invest $5m or more in blockchain technology that year.
A network that links businesses
Now, researchers at North Carolina State University have released a study that may see the technology put to use to share manufacturing data in order to link businesses. The paper, entitled "A Case Study for Blockchain in Manufacturing: 'FabRec': A Prototype for Peer-to-Peer Network of Manufacturing Nodes,” proposes blockchains be used in a network that would efficiently connect companies to small and medium-sized manufacturers with relevant products and services.
"Small- and medium-scale manufacturers often lack the resources and network reach necessary to make all of their potential clients aware of their manufacturing capabilities," said Binil Starly, corresponding author of a paper on the work and head of NC State's Data Intensive Manufacturing Environment Lab.
The peer-to-peer network proposed would be publicly-accessible and open-sourced to best help potential clients find the right manufacturers that can meet their needs. To test their theory, the researchers created a prototype of this network called FabRec that accepts inputs from several machines.
"Our approach, called FabRec, would allow companies to automatically report about their manufacturing activities: which machines are being used, what materials they are working with, raw material inventory levels, whether the work is being completed on time, and so on," said Atin Angrish, a Ph.D. student at NC State and first author of the paper.
Blockchains provide accountability
"Because these updates are automated, users can be fairly certain that the information is accurate," Angrish said. "And because it's being done through the blockchain, which allows event logs to be traced to their source, there is accountability. So clients can find the right manufacturers, and manufacturers can find new clients, without relying solely on claims made in marketing materials."
The prototype proved to be successful, demonstrating that so far the concept is viable. However, work on the intricate network has only just begun.
"The next step would be to establish agreed-upon protocols with participating manufacturers," Starly said. "That would allow the creation of code that permits users to report - and search for - any given set of parameters, such as type of product, production time, cost, and so on."
The team also plans to develop software to authenticate and distinguish authentic sources entering data into the network from unreliable ones. The aim is to ensure the system is trusted as reliable by supply chain professionals.
The study, co-authored by Benjamin Craver, an undergraduate at NC State; and Mahmud Hasan, a Ph.D. student at NC State, will be presented in June at the SME North American Manufacturing Research Conference in Texas. The research was executed with support from the National Science Foundation.