Technology | Blockchain

What is blockchain and how does it fit in manufacturing?

Words by Martin Kelman
What is blockchain and how does it fit in manufacturing?

In this article we’ll try to do the unimaginable, explain what a blockchain is. If you glaze over and start seeing stars when someone tries to untangle the magical technology behind wondrous creations like Bitcoin, you are not alone. We want to take a look at how blockchain technology can have a positive effect in manufacturing but to do so, we need a basic understanding of what a blockchain is. So, here we go.

What is a blockchain?

A block is a piece of data, stored digitally. A chain is a series of these data chunks linked together. So far so good, but not necessarily unique. We’ve been storing data in organised ways for decades now, what makes the blockchain different?

Well, each block in the chain has aspects that make it unique:

  • Each block has a hash generated based on the information it contains. For example, a Bitcoin block contains details of a transaction (time, date, amount, etc).
  • Each block also has a record of the previous block in the chain’s hash. This is only untrue for the first block in the chain, for evident reasons.
  • Each block comes with a proof-of-work value. That’s a method of slowing down how fast a new block can be created by requiring calculations to be made to validate any new block added to the chain. For Bitcoin, this takes about ten minutes per block.

Why is blockchain so secure?

Amendments to data within a block come with a set of problems that make it infeasible to tamper with well maintained blockchains. When you tamper with the data in a block, that changes the block’s hash. Changing that block’s hash means the block ahead’s record of the previous block’s hash is now wrong. And with proof-of-work making amending or adding blocks a lengthy process, any tampering is clearly visible and easily fixed.

Further to that, blockchain lives within peer-to-peer networks. Each time any amendment is made, for example a new block is added, a whole network of automated and manual systems jump into action to make sure that amendment is valid, correctly processed and not fraudulent.

How can blockchain help in manufacturing?

For anyone who thinks of blockchain as just the tech behind crypto, it might seem as though it has no place beyond expanding the financial avenues that industry players can take. But, the technology behind blockchain lends itself to a wide, wide variety of uses.

With accessible, shareable, verifiable and trustworthy data, you can tie many aspects of manufacturing to a blockchain. Suppliers can use blockchain as a digital ledger to verify and prove the quality and quantity of their resources. Global transactions between companies in different continents, on different time zones, using different currencies, can all transact securely and in good faith.

With smart factories becoming a reality and advancing every day, blockchains can help integrate granular shop floor activity with worldwide supply chains. Machines in discrete and process manufacturing environments can communicate automatically with suppliers, buyers, logistic companies and more. And they can do so accurately, in a way that’s infinitely recordable and recallable.

So, whether you’re a Bitcoin fanatic or blockchain is all new to you, I hope I’ve been able to demystify the whole prospect. Perhaps you’ve even got a little excited about the possibilities this tech provides. Either way, I’ll be back soon to attempt to illuminate another element of the technological world.