How Blockchain May Help
The 3D printing value chain requires effective security mechanisms to protect against IP and data security threats. According to our interviewees, blockchain technology, which can protect data records against manipulation, could serve as an underlying safeguarding layer in the 3D printing value chain. A Project Beta interviewee said, “The benefits that 3D printing offers also create certain risks. If we make our whole supply chain more distributed, we have to open our organization even more. It might be the case that we pass on sensitive data to people we do not fully trust. And at this point, blockchain helps to make 3D printing safer.”
A blockchain-based platform requires digital input data. Compared to other cases of blockchain use (for example, Maersk and IBM’s global trade platform, diamond tracking, food traceability), the most important input data in the 3D printing ecosystem—design files and production process data—are already digitally encapsulated (Holmström et al. 2019). In contrast to more conventional production processes, 3D printing already relies on a digital process chain, which can thereby facilitate blockchain adoption (because it also requires digital input data). In essence, multiple aspects of the 3D printing process chain do not require digitalization because they’re digitized already. Accordingly, bridging the 3D printing process and the digital ledger is both practical and feasible. The Project Beta leader explained the selection of the 3D printing use case: “Blockchain is really important for manufacturing and supply chain management. Hence, we intensively looked into 3D printing. We particularly searched for simple yet important use cases . . . And seemingly simple is the case of 3D printing, because there we already have a digital process chain.”
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At the same time, the manufacturing ecosystem changes from centralized, economies of scale-driven manufacturing to open, distributed manufacturing networks, resulting in more interorganizational cooperation and data sharing (Ben-Ner and Siemsen 2017; Holmström et al. 2019). 3D printing is a key technology within this paradigm shift in the manufacturing ecosystem-it is expected to unfold its business model potentials (for example, local on-demand manufacturing) in precisely these interorganizational settings. Blockchain, as a distributed ledger technology, matches these features with its particular strength in networks involving multiple stakeholders. One Project Alpha expert explained the 3D printing setting: “We have an environment including multiple stakeholders: designers, copyright holders, OEMs, printing service providers, and maintenance operators that need printed spare parts. And these stakeholders do not necessarily trust each other. Of course, they are able to and will establish contractual relationships, but they need possibilities of protection in order to run their business models securely and smoothly. And in a setting of several actors, with mandatory peer-to-peer communication, blockchain is a solution.” The inadequacy of IP and data security structures hampers 3D printing business model opportunities that emerge from the encapsulation of product design and production process data—which allow for greater independence, customization, organizational and geographic redistribution, localization, or interactivity of design and manufacturing processes (Petrick and Simpson 2013; Bogers, Hadar, and Bilberg 2016; Holmström et al. 2019).
How can blockchain technically help to create this secure environment that is crucial for distributed 3D printing business models? The three projects we studied follow the fundamental idea of mapping the lifecycle of a 3D printed part, involving all relevant stakeholders and corresponding workflows, on the blockchain. These stakeholders range from material suppliers, 3D printing service providers, OEMs, and logistics service providers, to final customers. Beyond these stakeholders involved in the physical flow of parts, other complementary actors primarily address the information flow and could include external originators uploading their designs to the platforms, certification authorities, or regulators and financial institutions (for payments, financing, or insurance) (Figure 1).
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During our study, Project Alpha had already implemented a blockchain-based licensing system, enabling the secure distribution of printing licenses across a network of external printing service providers. Project Beta, which focuses on streamlining 3D printing workflows, such as blockchain-based certification and authentication of 3D printed parts, had already run successful pilot projects with printed prototypes that could be authenticated via blockchain. Midway through our study, both Project Alpha and Project Beta aimed to connect more 3D printing stakeholders to their platforms, gradually increasing the number of workflows mapped on the blockchain. Project Gamma was laying the groundwork for a 3D printing network where printing capacities can be dynamically exchanged via a blockchain-based platform.
During the analysis period of this study, the three projects deployed permissioned blockchain solutions as an underlying infrastructure for their platforms, meaning that consortia members (stakeholders serving as blockchain nodes) are known and pre-selected. Although the interviewees could not specify a predefined timeline, all three projects plan to move towards more open (public) solutions—in a later stage of technological maturity—to leverage network effects.
The blockchain safeguards and shares part-related data, especially printing licenses, production process data, material provenance, test and simulation data, payment records, and part certifications. Feeding these data into a secure blockchain platform facilitates 3D printing business model opportunities.
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