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Securing 3D-Printing: Could Blockchain be the Answer?

Last week I printed a few popular toy models with different colors. Packed in gift paper, it was a surprise ready for my daughter’s birthday. In fact, I was torn between ordering a 24-pack of those figures from Amazon or printing it myself. I chose the latter as it allowed me the opportunity to tweak the design and make my daughter’s toy collection unique – something I knew would appeal to her sense of mischief. In only a few minutes I managed to ‘hack’ the model’s blueprints and add a little of my own creativity to the toys. I must admit, I quite enjoyed it!

Exciting Potential

3D-Printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing (AM), has worked its way into numerous domains, from amusement and fashion through to transport, healthcare and even food production. Many people even think that AM will facilitate the comeback of the manufacturing industry, allowing it to compete with low labor cost countries. Whether this will happen is hard to predict, however, there is no doubt about the tremendous potential of AM, which will disrupt the entire industry, including the traditional manufacturing processes, product life cycles and supply chains.

One of the early adopters of AM is the Aerospace and Defense industry, where AM was used in the early 1980s to produce prototypes to accelerate the development cycle. Today, AM is being industrialized to produce parts that are used in mission critical operations and thousands of printed parts are currently flying in Airbus airplanes.

Worrying Implications

Although an exciting development in the high-tech industry, AM is beginning to raise some concerns. For example, what would happen if 3D-printers were maliciously manipulated to introduce hidden flaws in parts? The ease with which I could modify open-source toy models is great for encouraging creativity, but it has serious implications. Could cybercriminals modify models designed for use in critical infrastructures? Not only could it cause economic damage, but in the worst-case scenario it could result in physical damage or even the loss of human life.

There are two different aspects concerning security in additive manufacturing. Firstly, how do we ensure the altering of 3D files – whether to introduce deliberate flaws, or modify printer control parameters – is controlled and eliminated?

Secondly, how can we manage the intellectual property contained within 3D files? How can the IP of designs be protected to not allow printing without payment or permission? How can copyright be assured through designs that cannot be ‘copied’ by scanning them? And finally, how can we ensure that dangerous items – such as weapons – are not illegally downloaded and printed?

To overcome these potential threats, security measures must be put in place to protect the Digital Thread of Additive Manufacturing (DTAM) with its various elements, stages, and data flows. Worryingly, at each stage of the DTAM process – from design, scan, CAD file creation, through to the inspection part – data can be at risk of compromise.

In searching for a solution to this challenge, Atos has successfully tested a Proof of Concept for a Digital Manufacturing Platform that shows how Blockchain technology can be applied to assure the protection of Intellectual Property Rights of designs. It provides full traceability and control of associated transactions, including use of models and controlling the number of prints. Using this security mechanism, the 3D printing process for a specific part can be restricted to pre-validated or certified printers, and the production process can be monitored using real time information sent from the selected printer. With tools like this, a scenario of trust in the remote manufacture of spare parts or personal consumer goods seems to be much more achievable. I have no doubt that if we allow the additive manufacturing technologies to mature, we’ll get there very shortly.

With the upcoming Atos IT Challenge, brilliant minds gather together to build disruptive Blockchain applications. Could the winner be based on the challenges of the Additive Manufacturing industry?

About Minh Le

Minh is a business developer and innovator in the area of connected vehicle and Internet of Things, mainly operating with automotive OEMs, telco’s, Fleet Operators, and manufacturers. Introducing new services, meanwhile focusing on architecture and security aspects is his biggest value for his customers and business partners. He is a distinguished member of Atos technical staff and active member of Atos Scientific Community, which plays a key role in enhancing Atos’ reputation as a world leader in the IT Services industry and as an innovator and thought-leader.