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Value Creation Partner: Decentralized Manufacturing Platforms

Decentralized manufacturing platforms hold tremendous potential – also for 3D printing. However concerns about data security, and integrity inhibit the willingness of value-added partners to participate in such media. The article shows how blockchain technology and smart contracts address this challenge.

The digital networking of value-added partners is a crucial success factor in dynamic economic systems and is constantly increasing. One of these benefits is that supply and demand can be matched more quickly thanks to increased transparency. Some of the cooperation between value-added partners already takes place via manufacturing platforms.

The Benefit Of The Value-Added Partners

Providers such as Xometry or Hubs support the value-added process by enabling decentralised processing of production orders using external resources. The unique feature of such negotiation and operator platforms is reflected in the simplicity of order processing and affordability for all users: The entire process from negotiation to production to delivery and payment processing is primarily organised via a virtual marketplace.

Easy Access To New Customers

3D printing technology, in particular, can benefit from the shared platform approach. Producers can efficiently and promptly make their 3D printers available to the market in the event of unused capacity. In addition, they get easy access to new customers. Conversely, customers can easily access external resources. Print jobs can thus be mediated in any batch size and specificity required. The platforms offer measurable advantages, such as increased capacity utilisation, delivery reliability, and customer satisfaction, and enable barrier-free access to new customers and increased visibility of market participants.

Such a platform also leads to a departure from established customer-supplier relationships. Due to a lack of transparency, anonymity, and incomplete information, there is often a reduced mutual trust between the value-added partners.

Increased Confidence In Data Integrity

To be able to counteract this challenge effectively, the reduced trust in the partners involved in the value-added process must be compensated for by increased confidence in data integrity and process integrity: Data integrity means ensuring that the data that is communicated is accurate and not true can be manipulated, whereas the process integrity describes a standard agreement of all actors regarding the processes to be carried out automatically. Since most information in the B2B context, e.g., order and system data, such as construction plans, payment modalities, capacities, and availability, is considered to be particularly sensitive and critical to competition, there are still requirements for confidentiality, availability,

The blockchain is a promising technology that can ensure trust in the data and process integrity in such systems. Even if the technology has achieved a high level of awareness due to prominent representatives in the cryptocurrency sector, the technology is by no means limited to these use cases. A blockchain is a decentralised, distributed, and shared electronic data store at its core. It corresponds to a “distributed journal with verified and confirmed blocks of transactions linked in a chain by a cryptographically secure connection.”

Each piece of new information, i.e., each new block, is only included in the blockchain if there is a consensus on its correctness. Such a technologically anchored consensus mechanism, together with the irreversibility of the stored data, forms the core of the trust-building properties of the blockchain. Due to the distributed storage of an identical copy of the data by all participants in a blockchain, unnoticed subsequent manipulation is almost impossible.

The term smart contract is also often associated with the blockchain. The term can originally be traced back to a contribution by Nick Szabo and describes a “program that was stored in the blockchain, can be executed by any system participant and the execution results of which can, in turn, be stored on the blockchain and made accessible to all system participants.” Therefore, intelligent contracts are not contracts in the commercial sense but primarily programmed if-then conditions. Smart contracts prove advantageous in that they are executed automatically and can partially replace manual processes. To succeed without actors being unjustly harmed, data integrity must be guaranteed as a central criterion.

Automated Processes For Verifying Value-Added Partners

Transferred to the application of 3D printing, blockchain, and smart contracts can be used to build manufacturing platforms that have clear advantages in terms of data and process integrity and can thus lead to increased user acceptance. Smart contracts enable consensus-based, automated execution of processes and can be used to verify the value-added partners involved. In this way, all platform users can be sure that their respective agreements will be enforced, such as the actual execution of the production order after booking or automated payment after receipt of goods. Likewise, the smart contract can be used as a medium to grant authorised participants access to sensitive information.

The example shows that intelligent contracts can contribute to building trust in practice by reducing opacity and enforcing agreed processes. The potential and challenges resulting from 3D printing and blockchain technology interaction are currently being further investigated at the science location Dortmund as part of the Blockchain Europe project.

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