Today’s business environment imposes an increasing need for automation and plant productivity. The result is a faster, more automated factory but with added expenses of time and effort. Automation becomes just one of many systems within today’s factory that continually needs refinement. While applying Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology has offered gains, the hunt has never died for building a leaner enterprise.
Researchers have begun to ask: Is layering IoT with blockchain architecture and improved 5G networking the next logical upgrade? Research into the combination of these tools is uncovering a few key facts:
- Blockchain offers the possibility of decentralizing and reducing the time and effort of centrally-run tasks that add steps and single points of failure within IoT clouds.
- 5G data networks may dramatically improve the speed of the resulting work, compared to the heavier processes that blockchain-assisted automation has replaced.
- Improved factory automation is one of many potential benefits to this mix of technology.
Industrial applications of IoT technology have already transformed the depth of data and speed at which data can be acted upon across smart factories. The unique combination of leveraging IoT networks with blockchain-managed interactions over 5G pushes the potential gains even further. As explained by researchers in a January 2020 edition of Mechanical Systems and Signal Processing, manufacturers stand to see gains in security, reliability, and compliance.
The central storage of operational data means there is a single, major point of potential failure. Today’s IoT networking protocols have vulnerabilities like any networking mechanism. Devices interacting across the network, and behind the initial authentication and permissioning measures across the enterprise, are not prepared to self-police to ensure secure, trustworthy interactions.
Blockchain devices leverage Public/Private key pairs in their interactions, providing extra layers of security so transactions can be trusted across a network. Interactions between devices become trustworthy even if the network itself can’t always be guaranteed.
Compliance and Auditability of systems improves significantly by following basic blockchain principles. Because all changes to data on the blockchain are authored against a common ledger, it becomes very easy to see and prove the authenticity and sourcing of data created across a business’ IoT cloud.
The second key area where layering together 5G, IoT, and Blockchain may yield benefits for manufacturers is improved production. Businesses stand to improve the management of their facilities by more intelligently allocating resources, furthering existing IoT-enabled predictive analytics performance, and using blockchain to enhance asset management functionality and transparency for devices.
Today, IoT gives producers a way to measure the capacity and utilization of plant resources. By layering blockchain principles over IoT networks, businesses could reach smarter asset administration. In this context, smarter asset administration would allow for a company’s network of IoT devices to identify resources that are under and over-utilized. Further, blockchain may enable self-balancing of production processes by optimizing these pockets of open capacity against bottlenecked processes and tools.
Physical asset monitoring is one of the most common use cases leveraged for IIoT and can help extend the service life of assets, optimize maintenance activities, and streamline field service activities based on the required, indicated maintenance.
Adding 5G networking and Blockchain-based interaction models can provide some unique benefits. The potential to decentralize analytics may ultimately mean more efficient monitoring across entire networks, as opposed to traditional architecture. As in other cases, IoT over 5G improves both the amount of data throughput and communication speed across connected devices. Using blockchain tools to decentralize communication and plant management could increase the efficacy of analytics tools. In turn, a company could become better at identifying and triggering interventions required by devices on the network.
3. Compliance & Management
Today’s manufacturing equipment requires more maintenance over its service life than physical repair. Managing the software updates for the life of a machine is a daunting task for a connected factory. The ability of blockchains to spread and validate updates makes it ideal for scaled software management. This feature unique to blockchain’s common ledger and versioning logic could yield profound results.
One advantage of IoT is the reduction of ‘middlemen’ interactions across connected systems. Without having to go through central processing systems for process management, devices can orchestrate processes in new and cost-reducing ways. This change means interactions can simultaneously become more sophisticated, more intelligent, and less expensive.
Blockchain is fundamentally an imposition of extra processing on transactions already happening across a system. However, 5G makes blockchain cheaper by improving the network’s speed and overall capacity. By providing a way to offload heavy processes from dedicated systems, blockchain accomplishes two improvements at the same time. While the new distributed blockchain computing model reduces processing time and effort, 5G improves a company’s IoT cloud performance.
In this way, IoT meshes of devices can become more low-touch by offloading process automation from centrally located resources. Cutting out the middlemen in each process improves overall plant function. IoT devices using blockchain and 5G could send direct requests or instructions to the next devices involved in a process. If process automation is already decentralized across the network, the overall result is a smarter and faster approach to managing manufacturing operations.
While it’s exciting to speculate about how technology may change in time, individual technologies are not likely to completely upend the sophisticated means of production leveraged by Industry 4.0. To that end, IoT technologies have already offered cost savings and productivity improvements. Combining IoT with the secure transaction model provided by blockchain, and the ubiquitous speed and network capacity provided by 5G, may just be the killer app Industrial IoT needs.