Q & A: What does blockchain actually mean for manufacturers?

It's the new buzzword on the block. But what does blockchain actually mean for manufacturers? Graeme Wright, CTO Manufacturing & Utilities, Fujitsu UK & Ireland, explains. 

Isn't Blockchain just a fad?

Put simply – No.   Blockchain is all too often confused with crypto-currencies; they just are one solution built on the technology.  Blockchain offers a fundamentally new approach to sharing information between people and organisations – one that is built on trust and by sharing the ledger (list of records) enforces an immutable statement of truth that can be therefore be used to ensure security. On top of that, the idea of smart contracts allows machine to machine transaction (contracts) to be executed automatically.

How can Blockchain be used in manufacturing? 

There are so many ways – but for just one example - think of the costs involved in managing the supply chain and ensuring provenance – Blockchains with smart contracts can automate these processes, reduce the cost to marginal levels and ensure that a company’s resources are focused on the value added tasks so increasing productivity at lower cost.

Blockchain offers a fundamentally new approach to sharing information between people and organisations

What are the benefits? 

The benefits will depend on the exact use case as per the one described above. However, the key benefits of Blockchains can probably be summarised ultimately as reductions in cost, increased provenance across complex supply chains, and increased security especially for connected products,

What are the risks for people who ignore it?

Without being flippant – it would be not to have the benefits mentioned – but what that means is not having full traceability and provenance – which may lead to inferior products.  E.g. imagine if a supplier of components used NFC or RFID tags that were registered in a Blockchain on each component.  A business would know that every component was genuine and the trust would be part of the shared ledger so fake products could not be added to the ledger.  If a product recall was needed or a customer needed a replacement then this could be done simply and at low cost whilst also ensuring consumer continued to get the product quality they bought.  The spare/replacement parts market is often very large and ensuring consumers get the right replacement parts that keep warranties valid is a massive challenge.    I also believe this could be used to overcome certain tax – import/export issues.

How important is it for engineering/manufacturing to have a diverse workforce and what can Industry/Government do to help? 

There are so many facets to that question – I think from a socio-political perspective it is very important – however, I also think that from an innovation perspective it is very important.   The last thing business need is everyone having the same type of background, gender, cultural, etc. as this limits the ability to new ideas.   This is well documented as a way in which good businesses fail.   How can Industry/Government help?  - Keep pushing the diversity and inclusion agenda – but be careful not to discriminate against those to have experience as well.   Whilst we all know that the next generation bring great insight by challenging the status quo and asking the question ‘why wouldn’t we do it this way?’ or something similar; whilst not accepting answer ‘we have always done it this way’.   However, experience has a lot of value as well – mistake we have all made are lessons we can all learn from.   The point here is ensure people are treated equally – but putting hard metrics that must be met out of context can be less than optimal if not dangerous.

What would you put in Engineering Room 101?

A difficult one. I think connector leads, particularly HiFi/TV leads.   They just create a mess of wires, you never have the right ones or the right length and working out what goes where can be a challenge for many.   I think with the wireless technologies we have today; it is the start of the end for wired connectors and not before time.

Graeme Wright is speaking about Blockchain on Day 2 of The Engineer's annual conference, which runs from 5th - 7th June at the NEC Birmingham.