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SAP, Intel, IBM, Microsoft, Dow Chemical, DMDII, L’Oréal, ITAMCO, Akeoplus, Siemens, Rockwell also try blockchain on for size

SAP piloted blockchain with 15 pharmaceutical firms, including AMGEN, AmerisourceBergen, Boehringer Ingelheim, GSK, McKesson, Merck and Novo Nordisk, SAP’s Hans Thalbauer said in an interview at IMTS 2018 in Chicago.

The No. 1 use case for blockchain is all around track-and- trace: knowing where a product is and how it is holding up, he asserted.

In the six-month pilot that ended in May last year, SAP did one billion transactions on blockchain, SAP’s Gil Perez said.hans-thalbauer-caption.jpg

One lesson the SAP team learned: For drug companies, speed was less critical on the production side and more critical when unused drugs were being returned.

“The pharma use case we are addressing is prescription drugs’ ‘sellable return’,” Perez said. “As such, on the production side it didn’t matter if it takes another two seconds or 10 seconds to write the data to blockchain.

“Yet the performance is critical when the returned drugs are moving on a conveyer belt,” he added. “The system needs to make a split-second decision on how to sort the drugs after reading and verifying the information from the blockchain.”

SAP also recently partnered with semiconductor maker Intel to experiment with blockchain.

“In the high-tech industry, it’s again the track-and-trace scenario: They are tracking their products, making sure that the components going into the finished product are serialized and can be matched and mapped,” Thalbauer said.

“It’s also the digitization of documents,” he added. “For example, in the whole import-export scenario, there are thousands and thousands of documents that can be digitized. It makes life so much easier”—whether it is dealing with government officials or truck drivers.

“This [situation], where we still have a lot of paperwork involved, is where blockchain technology, combined with today’s super-cheap sensors, can automate a lot, making processes much more efficient.”

Cargo ships will no longer sit in port for days waiting for paperwork. Digitized paperwork— that becomes part of a blockchain-based recordkeeping system—“can take out 10 days in the shipping process,” Thalbauer said.

IBM, Microsoft pick some partners

IBM is working with supply chain-related operations in the food and beverage industry. The company also has seen interest from aerospace and automotive firms, IBM’s Krishna Ratakonda said.

Microsoft has engaged directly with customers in developing applications for its Azure platform to support specific blockchain use cases, Microsoft’s Diego Tamburini said.

Microsoft also is working with Dow Chemical and The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) on using blockchain for supply chains, he said.

L’Oréal testing two use cases

Stéphane-Morel-caption.jpgL’Oréal considers “connected products” a pillar of its digital transformation, L’Oréal’s Stéphane Lannuzel said in a recent interview in Paris.

“It starts from a simple QR code that will be able to interact with your smartphone. It goes through RFID or NFC technology, and now even using blockchain. These technologies are there to make the link between the physical world, which is the product, and the digital world, which is the data and your smartphone. That’s all the reflection around the connected products.”

L’Oréal is testing two use cases for blockchain technology around transparency—concerning “the products, from raw materials to the consumers, and all of the logistics information,” he said. “When you ship products from one country to another, you need to provide a lot of certificates, and putting the certificates in the blockchain is very promising.”

ITAMCO does some government work

The gear manufacturing shop Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Companies (ITAMCO) got its feet wet with blockchain in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project, ITAMCO’s Joel Neidig said.

The company developed low-latency platforms to aggregate data at the machine level and push up to the blockchain only the data that was really needed.

Akeoplus sees new way to avoid disputes

In the fall of 2017, Akeoplus started an R&D program with CEA, France’s Atomic Energy Commission, to explore blockchain technology, Akeoplus’s Stéphane Morel said in a recent interview in Paris. “We are working with the scientists there to develop blockchain inside AkeoSpine,” he added, noting that he developed that “gateway edge computing” software to include computer science and machine learning in machines and robots.

The addition of blockchain will improve machines’ traceability, he said.

“When you register what the machine is doing, for example, each second and record this data in a blockchain, it could be a very new opportunity for customers and suppliers to avoid disputes.

“You can’t change the data written in the blockchain,” Morel added. “So we want to include blockchain in our technology to help customers and suppliers be more efficient and transparent in how machines will produce in the future.”

Akeoplus is working with “early-stage adopter customers” on the first version of blockchain inside AkeoSpine, which is just about ready to come out of the oven, he said, declining to name the customers.

Siemens explores the ‘digital recipe’

Siemens, which has become a major player in blockchain’s use on the power grid, is also working, via its Next47 unit, with use cases for blockchain in manufacturing.

The company is piloting projects in discrete and process manufacturing and working with the blockchain platforms Hyperledger and Ethereum, Siemens’ Philippe Labalette said.

About four years ago, Siemens began working with Identify 3D to further develop a protected, repeatable and traceable manufacturing process. Siemens so far has integrated the startup’s software into its PLM system and automation equipment.Philippe-Labellette-caption.jpg

“Our goal is to enable distributed manufacturing: the idea that you can keep a digital recipe of how to build something and then manufacture it on demand,” Identify 3D’s Joe Inkenbrandt said. “Of course, the industry, like Siemens, wants to move this way, especially for high value, high precision parts in low quantities.”

To address the problem of moving engineering further away from manufacturing, San Francisco-based Identify 3D focused on IP security, repeatability of standardization and production traceability, he said.

The company’s software stores data about when a license was created, and for how many parts. It notes the serial numbers used, who designed the part, who made the part on what day, who the workshop manager was that day, and any design revisions. “That traceability becomes really important in distributed manufacturing,” Inkenbrandt said, “because now that we’ve separated engineering and manufacturing, how do you know what your yield rate is?”

“You can query our system and all that data is contained there so we can help build a digital twin,” he added. “And then of course we can use blockchain to do it as well.”

But blockchain only becomes useful when there are “a lot of collaborators” in a distributed manufacturing model, Inkenbrandt said. Today, with just six players in a typical traditional manufacturing supply chain, a centralized database using a trace application like the one in Identify 3D’s software works just fine.

Rockwell Automation ‘optimistic’

Rockwell Automation is taking a cautious approach to blockchain. The Milwaukee-based firm did some blockchain pilots with vendors last year, Dave Vasko said, declining to name any of them. For this year, he said, “we’ll continue to look at what’s developing and how we integrate best into that.”

The company knows it does not want to own its own blockchain. “We’re going to participate with other vendors and consortiums where required,” Vasko said, adding that the firm is too diversified for one system to work.

“Leveraging standard tools for the infrastructure and being able to participate in different ledger schemes makes sense for Rockwell,” he said in a recent interview in Philadelphia. “I’m very optimistic about it” in large part because blockchain technology will facilitate having “trusted transactions with much smaller companies” than those with which Rockwell partners today.

“We’re trying to connect enterprises together,” Vasko said. “Having small and medium manufacturers participate with trust is going to be a big change going forward.”