Blockchain: Beyond the hype

The capabilities blockchain could provide to manufacturers are yet to be fully understood, but it is promising a lot: secure supply chains, traceability, advanced IoT security and much more.

Digital Catapult's Robert Learney delivered the first keynote at Industrial Blockchain Exchange - image courtesy of TM.
Robert Learney delivered the first keynote at Industrial Blockchain Exchange – image courtesy of TM.

Blockchain is a method of logging information in blocks, a digital ledger of transactions, agreements and contracts linked in a time-sequenced chain.

“Two or three years ago no-one knew about blockchain in the manufacturing sector, now we’re seeing use cases and experiments to show what this technology could achieve,” says Robert Learney, lead technologist at the Digital Catapult.

This kicked off the first ever Industrial Blockchain Exchange (11 April), which saw UK manufacturers and experts gather to scrutinise the role of the technology within their operations, and breakdown the hype into tangible business benefits.

Learney’s keynote began by explaining the function of blockchain, also known as distributed ledger technology (DLT).

If you have an exploitable common good, he used fish in a lake as an example, then it will be, so we need to find ways of managing these common resources in a more efficient way.

“The point of the digital ledger is so that every copy can talk to all the other ledgers no matter where they are. Records are available immediately and in total synchronicity, it’s actually quite simple,” he noted.

Learney’s key blockchain points:

  • A ledger’s history is canonical
  • Cryptographic signatures for when new blocks are added
  • There is a consensus protocol agreed by all partners on the chain, so the system cannot be undermined

The Digital Catapult’s recent research, Blockchain in Action, surveyed companies creating such systems. It found that the majority (75%) of DLT companies have products ready to demonstrate, but most activity is still focused on the financial services sector.

Low uptake regarding potential industrial applications may be in part due to the complex supply chains involved with physical products, the quality, scale and technology readiness of which can vary.

UK is leading blockchain

Technology leaders in Silicon Valley regard the UK as a world leader in innovative blockchain companies, according to the Digital Catapult’s research.

“We know the UK benefits from massive investment and a huge pool of talent, so what are our issues? Well, the business of blockchain means that it is a form of infrastructure, one that requires data-sharing; we need companies to open something up to us in order for it to work.

“Of course, you don’t have to share everything, just enough information to validate transactions,” noted Learney. 

In an industry like manufacturing, where intellectual property often underpins entire businesses, can organisation trust a technology that is only a decade-old? Are they open to working with companies who are comparatively in their infancy in regards to managing their critical IP and supply chains?

“Often it’s a case of ‘how am I going to transform my company internally?’ There is also a technical complexity and, particularly for manufacturing, there are very few examples. But if it’s set up correctly, it can offer many benefits to businesses, secure transactions across entire supply chains, no cash flow problems, secure IT; benefits we have already seen in sectors like finance,” Learney added.

Learney’s blockchain examples –

Smart Ports: Improving container flows and management for stakeholders, port operators, authorities and shipping companies

Construction: Reducing the costs and risks in complex multi-stakeholder projects​

Independent Films:​ Tracking individual contributions to the creative process

Blockchain as –

An Experience: ‘Cloud’ blockchain​, data lakes

A Service: Development consultancies​, crypto exchanges

A Product: Full-stack blockchain, decentralised application (dApps)


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