By 2020, it is estimated that there will be over 20.4 billion IoT devices deployed around the world. In an in-depth study by Deloitte, a further estimation predicts that by 2022 a family home in an “affluent market” will utilize up to 500 sensing devices every day.
What these trends indicate, in accordance with the vast majority of industry experts, is that the future of data and optimal business management centres will rely on Internet of Things devices, and other forms of ‘intelligent’ electronics.
This monumental shift, which is only just beginning, inaugurates what has been best coined by Klaus Schwab as a Fourth Industrial Revolution, set to bring a variety of cutting edge technologies into mainstream society, including; artificial intelligence, machine learning, additive manufacturing, and distributed ledger technology (DLT) among others.
Unfortunately, as history has shown, paradigm shifts in technological innovation are also accompanied by serious problems: counterfeiting, fraud, and intellectual property theft. Today, as the world transitions from an internet of information to an internet of value, a number of cutting edge technologies are prime targets for tampering with and plagiarism.
In the case of IoT devices and 3D printers, the most serious problems concern data security and product integrity: for 3D printed products, can the object design be altered or tampered with?
Can IoT devices be better secured against hacking and data theft? Most importantly, how is intellectual property respected for product designs and blueprints in a manner whereby the inventor is properly credited for their contribution?
In additive manufacturing alone, a recent article has indicated that close to 3800 3D printers are exposed online at any given time, allowing for anyone in the world to alter or tweak the product blueprints.
INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS
For IoT devices, a different study estimated that there were close to “27,700 open entry points for a hacker” in a typical hospital. The problem in place is not only a matter of tampering with product designs, or altering data, it is also applicable to intellectual property rights, and the underlying function of the products in question.
For many 3D printed devices, their function is to be used as spare parts in airplanes and other forms of aeronautical or military aviation. If a hacker were to slightly modify a design in question, not only would the company waste valuable resources in printing inadequate products, but the products themselves would also be susceptible to failing ‘on the job’ and endangering human life.
Without proper security mechanisms in place, responsible for protecting product designs and certifying intellectual property, the industrial rise of IoT devices and 3D printed objects will be short lived and plagued with malfunctioning products.
In response to the untrustworthy foundations of additive manufacturing and internet of things technology, industry experts have come to a clear consensus on how to solve this problem: distributed ledger technology, also known as blockchain. While blockchain has been promoted as the general purpose technology of the 21st century, par excellence, it proves to be especially applicable to securing data and product designs for 3D printed objects and smart sensors alike. More specifically, blockchain is flexible insofar as it can allow for easy access to product designs while also guaranteeing intellectual ownership and permissioned file access.
In relation to additive manufacturing, blockchain possesses the capability of ‘streamlining’ the flow of print designs between designers, the owners of the printing software, and the users who can actually print the objects in question. License information pertaining to a specific product can be programmed with smart contracts so as to ensure that only a specified recipient has the ability to update or change the file. With every block validated in a distributed ledger, a timestamp referring to the specific transaction data or ‘meta-data’ is also logged. Such data then becomes impossible to alter.
Once the data of a certain print file has been immutably stored in a distributed ledger, it is relatively easy to verify that the correct blueprint is used, as well as the responsible party for designing it. In some scenarios, one could even go so far as to tag each physical 3D printed object with a specific RFID chip or embedded sensor, in order to further track and trace ownership.
Altogether distributed ledgers are holistic in their applicability to current problems in additive manufacturing: intellectual property can be preserved, data can be seamlessly shared, and finalized products can be effectively traced. For all such benefits, a skilled developer could then easily configure that data into a clear dashboard for all parties involved to observe in real-time.
When it comes to the security of IoT devices, blockchain is equally useful. Depending on the nature of the device in question, a smart sensor, smart container, or central gateway can be encrypted so as to limit the accessibility of the device to only permissioned stakeholders.
Data, or specific meta-data, can be sent directly to the blockchain and, thereby, avoid tampering or insecure data storage on a centralized database. At the Ambrosus Innovation Laboratory in Switzerland, software and mechanical engineers are currently working on a solution whereby sensors will be able to cross communicate with one another, before even transmitting data to the blockchain, so as to ensure optimal precision in the data being collected. Ultimately more accurate data recordings can bolster business efficiency, improve decision making, and allow humans and machines alike to better identify compromised devices.
As more sophisticated IoT devices are manufactured in the future, and more creative 3D printed objects become accessible to the average consumer, the need for security, trustless cooperation, and seamless data flows will increase significantly.
Blockchain fulfils its function as a general purpose technology by being the gatekeeper of trust for all data in need of validation and all intellectual property that is shared. In the coming decades, a radically new sharing economy built on efficiency, authenticity, and proper ownership, will ultimately allow for inventors, businesses, and consumers alike to all benefit from the value of distributed ledger technology.
Angel Versetti is chief executive at Ambrosus, a leading blockchain and IoT platform for quality assurance in goods and pharmaceutical supply chains.