Blockchain has already disrupted business processes in the financial sector, and is poised to impact companies across industries. Because the technology can provide an immutable digital record of contractual interactions and transactions across an ecosystem, we believe that manufacturing is likely next in line.
Blockchain is a mutually shared ledger of all transactions in a given transactional relationship. Combined with its consensus mechanisms and use of public key infrastructure (PKI) to verify and authenticate all changes made to the ledger, blockchain can enable the network itself to ensure trust among participants. The result: a whole new way to support distributed manufacturing across the value chain.
The Importance of Trust
Consider, for example, the ways in which blockchain can simplify how trust is developed within a manufacturing ecosystem. In the traditional manufacturing world, parties transacting with each other spend considerable time and money on establishing external mechanisms to ensure trust, in the form of contracts, service-level agreements, quality checks, inspections, audits, scanning, escrows and regulatory compliance reviews, to name a few. As the number of parties increases, so does the complexity. Reconciling separate ledgers, enforcing contracts, ensuring supply chain transparency and protecting intellectual property when multiple entities are involved are all laborious and burdensome processes, prone to error and vulnerable to fraud.
Research shows that companies that build a culture of trust can fuel stronger performance by enabling departments to interact better and perform better across multiple dimensions. Establishing trust between contracted parties has similar positive effects. All these measures, however, amount to a costly “trust tax.”
For participants in a blockchain network – product designers, production shops, 3-D printers, logistics partners, sales and customer service – that tax is greatly reduced. A secure, distributed ledger infrastructure accessible to multiple parties enables a new level of real-time transparency and efficiency for transactions involving the transfer of anything of value – whether that means ideas, money or ownership.
In our recent global study that included 281 manufacturing professionals, in fact, “trust” was a top driver for blockchain adoption.
Ensuring Transparency, Security, Auditability
Blockchain ledgers are:
- Shared: Separate entities share a common source of truth.
- Distributed: Blockchain relies on peer-to-peer collaboration, with no central ownership.
- Secure: Cryptographic algorithms verify, authenticate and secure transactions.
- Time-sequenced: Data is written consecutively and is time-stamped.
- Immutable: Once written on the blockchain, data cannot be changed, tampered with or deleted.
Through smart contracts with supply chain partners on the blockchain network – programmed agreements that are independently verifiable and automatically executed when predefined conditions are met – companies can minimize human intervention and ensure performance transparency, transaction certainty and auditability.
Within industries and even across interlocked, tiered manufacturing sectors, distributed ledger systems allow companies to develop new, platform-based process flows. A user might execute a smart contract for a custom-configured order, for example, combining designs from multiple sources. The encrypted design data would be recorded on the shared platform; materials and services could be autonomously sourced; and a shared factory could produce the customized product. Payments, including royalties to designers, would be issued when the product is delivered. A record of all transactions, from design selection to payment, remains on the blockchain.
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
Blockchain technology thus enables distributed manufacturing, offering participants unprecedented opportunities to develop new product and service lines, create new customer segments, enter new markets and find new ways to use and share assets:
- Through supply chain transparency. All parties transact on a common platform, gaining real-time visibility into processes in the value chain, and simplifying materials sourcing and the interaction of design, manufacturers and other service providers. Supply chain processes, including payments and trade finance, can be streamlined and automated using smart contracts.
- Through digital product memories. Immutable records of asset provenance, materials, production data, ownership and other data ensure authenticity and minimize transaction risk.
- Through secure digital intellectual property. Parties to a transaction can be assured that their intellectual property is protected. Using blockchain to manage a contracted production run from a 3-D printer of ceramic components, for example, would allow a manufacturer to encrypt proprietary 3-D print files from end to end while creating an immutable history of the transaction. Similarly, escrows and royalty accounting would protect designers and other owners of IP.
There are many more circumstances in which adopting blockchain technology can deliver value. Participants can slash inventory costs and service times. They can eliminate reconciliation, and automate and speed financial and process flows. They can reduce manual interventions and reduce fraud. And they can create new ways to extend the lifecycle of products and optimize the use of assets.
What’s Next? Evaluating Readiness
As manufacturers move toward a shared and distributed model, business leaders can consider four questions when evaluating readiness:
- Where in the value chain, internally and externally, are we paying the highest “trust tax” in terms of excess cost, effort or lack of agility?
- How would the availability of a digital product memory drive value for our company, our customers and our business partners?
- Which types of partners, in what geographies and with what expertise, could we work with if transaction costs and efforts were lower?
- Which information assets (e.g., manufacturing, maintenance, operational and usage data) about our products could we monetize if there were a secure way to do so?
A blockchain-enabled, collaborative database is optimal for ensuring agreement between all participants in a value chain. It’s time for manufacturers to examine the implications for their business model. Organizations that gain hands-on experience with blockchain technology thorugh pilot projects will have an advantage as consortia start to form, and will be better equipped to lead the effort and make key decisions around structure and governance, prepare for the corresponding cultural shift, build skills and capabilities, and understand how it will impact business strategy going forward.
Get in the blocks. The race starts now.
Olesya Gorbunova, a Senior Consultant in Cognizant’s Blockchain & Distributed Ledger Practice, contributed to this blog.