Blockchain – A main driver of Industry 4.0

The fourth industrial revolution, or industry 4.0, mainly refers to the concept of factories in which machines are augmented with smart and autonomous systems enhanced by the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning and cyber-physical systems. But what really unfolds the true power of industry 4.0 is the fact that it requires computers and machines to be connected and communicating with one another to ultimately make decisions without human intervention. So ultimately, it is the network of these machines that are digitally connected with one another, creating and sharing information, that results in the true power of industry 4.0. Looking at the main features of industry 4.0, many similarities with blockchain technology can be found. The key drivers for industry 4.0 and blockchain are data management, connectivity and digitization. And in most cases, decentralization and distribution can be added to these features. 


Industry 4.0 Challenges

Industry 4.0 is making use of new technologies such as Industry Internet of Things (IIoT) to improve operations and management in industrial settings. Nevertheless, the transition to industry 4.0 won’t come without a range of issues or challenges, due to the complex nature of the accompanying technologies. The digitization of the industrial sector requires from industrial firms to deal with greater requirements than before such as reporting, transparency and security of data. The collection, management, analysis and storage of the big data is the main challenge to deal with. Industry 4.0 big data comes from different sources and devices: product and/or machine design data, machine-operation data from control systems, product and/or process quality data, records of manual operations carried out by staff, manufacturing execution systems, information on manufacturing and operational costs, system-monitoring data, logistics information and customer information. Thus, networks, data processing systems, data storage devices and data analytics platforms have to be able to withstand this avalanche of data. Also, the infrastructure and connectivity of networks are required to transport, store, protect and leverage all the IIoT data. In other words, networks have to adapt to an IoT and Big data world. Along with demands for increased capacity and intelligence within networks, as a consequence of digital transformation, there is also a new IT infrastructure paradigm whereby capacity, computing, connectivity and cloud technologies are moving closer to the devices themselves, closer to the edge of the network and therefore shifting into a more distributed architecture.

Like any other application that exist in the cyber world, IoT has already turned into a serious security concern. The security of data is a major nightmare to all industry 4.0 settings. Furthermore, IoT creates unique challenges to privacy, many that go beyond the data privacy issues that currently exist. Much of this stems from integrating devices into our environments without us consciously using them. On the other hand, the accuracy of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms is strictly related to the amount of data used to train them. Consequently, data sharing between different applications is very important to improve the accuracy of such algorithms. Thus, an equilibrated coexistence of transparency and privacy is a key driver to the development and growth of industry 4.0

Blockchain Enablement for Industry 4.0

Blockchain enablement for industry 4.0, is where blockchain can step in to resolve some issues, not by replacing the existing technology, but by bridging some of those gaps and offering some solutions to these ingrained issues. Blockchain allows industrial companies to automate more while processing greater volumes of data with fewer people at a lower cost and risk. Blockchain can be a major contributor to the development of industry 4.0 through the automation and integration of the supply chain, tracking and tracing of products life cycle and finally sharing and securing IIoT data.

The dramatic growing scale of the IIoT architecture suffers from high connectivity costs and increased maintenance costs. Moreover, centralized systems are vulnerable to targeted attacks specially denial-of-service DoS attacks, thus as a result, the new IT paradigm is pushing the whole network closer to the devices themselves, closer to the edge of the network. The key concept of blockchain technology is a distributed ledger, that is, an open, distributed database maintained by multiple nodes. Conceptually, based on blockchain, we can build a decentralized and basic data platform for IIoT systems, which can effectively mitigate problems associated with high access and communication costs. In addition, a decentralized architecture is more resistant to single point of failure. As nodes are completely anonymous in blockchain system, privacy and security are better ensured. Furthermore, blockchain technology has shown great potential in overcoming data security and privacy problems.

Alternatively, blockchain offers the capacity to create a digital twin for every piece of equipment or machinery and update it continuously. These digital records can be aggregated to provide a real-time snapshot of the machinery condition from the moment it exits the assembly line to the day decades later when it is returned to its lessor or retired from service. And by ensuring that participants have access only to the information they’re entitled to, blockchain could simultaneously improve participants’ visibility into their own businesses while safeguarding their data from competitors. Additionally, a continually updated ledger of each part’s condition and usage could help reduce time spent on routine inspection and maintenance, enabling the engagement in a more predictive maintenance procedure, and potentially head problems off before they affect operations.

From a manufacturing point of view, the manufacturer’s access to this updated ledger could help detect fabrication defects at an early stage and reducing impacts from equipment callouts. Also, a large amount of shared data from similar equipment or machinery operating in different locations can help improve machine learning algorithms and therefore improving equipment efficiency, operation and maintenance. In the future, blockchain technology could enable the spread of intelligent “power-by-the-hour” service arrangements, in which a supplier guarantees the supply, repair, and overhaul of the components and systems it provides, to every piece of equipment. Real-time configuration and maintenance data could allow original equipment manufacturers to predict the condition, usage, and, ultimately, life span of parts or systems and tailor their production processes to make sure spares are available on a just-in-time basis. That would improve service for their customers while cutting their own inventory costs.  The latest example of this blockchain transparency across interactions is launched by Renault. The French automaker is piloting a digitized car maintenance program, which uses blockchain as a shared ledger to log all car repair and maintenance history in one place. By leveraging blockchain technology, customers will be able to save all vehicle information to a streamlined, tamper-proof and secure digital car maintenance book.

Another extractable feature of this digital twin identity, through its ability to provide verifiable real time updated maintenance records, is the fact that it allows buyers in the secondary market to have greater confidence in their purchases and ability to select from the best-maintained machinery, hence rising the equipment end-of-service value.

Blockchain can maximize the use of IIoT

The potential of blockchain technology in maximizing the use of IIoT relies in the definition of the technology itself. Blockchain is a distributed, timestamped, immutable digital ledger that leverages trust between peers. Thus, as previously explained, the deployment of IIoT devices can be very complex, and the distributed nature of blockchain is well suited to provide IIoT devices identification, authentication and seamless secure data transfer. Another feature of blockchain is immutability. Consequently, blockchain offers the necessary framework to protect IIoT devices data not only from tampering but also providing a history of connected devices for troubleshooting purposes. Similarly, blockchain can be used to track the sensor data measurements and prevent duplication with any another malicious data.

Blockchain eliminates the need of trusted third-party intermediaries by empowering per-to-peer trust via mathematical algorithms. So, instead of going through a third party for establishing trust, IIoT sensors can exchange data though the blockchain platform. Blockchain enables device autonomy by using smart contracts, individual identity and integrity of data, consequently supporting peer-to-peer communication by removing technical bottlenecks and inefficiencies. The absence of intermediaries will reduce the deployment and operation costs of IIoT.

Final Thoughts

With no doubts, blockchain based industry 4.0 solutions have the potential to simplify business models, business processes, improving system efficiency and achieving significant cost reductions. Thus, it is vital that industry stakeholders consider combining IIoT procedures with blockchain solutions to stay competitive and to push innovation in their businesses and services.

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