Finding Blockchain-Based Security Solutions for the 3D Printing Economy

3D printing promises no less than the possibility to treat the physical world of atoms like the virtual world of bits, allowing users to “email” all sorts of physical objects — that is, they can send validated specs to be 3D printed by a recipient with one click.

In 3D printing, or “additive manufacturing,” successive layers of material are added to create the desired object, which can be of almost any shape or geometry. There’s still a perception that 3D printing is an expensive and overhyped way to manufacture cheap plastic toys, but the reality is that today’s 3D printers can process a wide and increasing range of materials and complex designs.

With comparatively low manufacturing costs — and no shipping costs — 3D printing is expected to have an important industrial impact. Personal 3D printing has been compared to the beginnings of the personal computing industry in the 1980s, and 3D printing enthusiasts envision an explosive growth of the sector similar to the growth of the internet in the 1990s.

According to Gartner, a technology consulting firm, 3D printing is now starting to push its way into manufacturing operations that require quick-to-market builds, unique design requirements and low-volume production runs.

It’s worth noting that 3D printing is rapidly advancing toward printing military-grade hardware. This and other advanced applications of 3D printing are still reserved for industrial manufacturing. Following a typical contemporary trend, it can be expected to reach the average consumer soon.

The 3D printing industry is making advances toward printing electronic components and entire devices, as well as food, drugs and even organic tissue and entire organs for transplants. So, we can expect that a 3D printing economy will develop to encompass local manufacturing of all sorts of goods, from the simple to the complex, from public domain or commercial design specs.

The 3D printing economy is expected to have a multi-tiered ecosystem with complex virtual supply chains, and, of course, it will include payment layers. For example, smart contracts embedded in 3D printable goods could enforce use-based pricing models.

Securing 3D Code on the Blockchain

Of course, the devil is in the details. What if fake designs end up in 3D printed goods intended for important security-critical applications? How will the industry combat piracy?

The Secure Additive Manufacturing Platform (SAMPL) project, developed by a consortium of German companies and institutions coordinated by PROSTEP AG, wants to develop a comprehensive security solution for additive manufacturing. The project is sponsored by the German Ministry of Economics and Energy for a period of three years, with $3 million (€2.6 million) in funding. The SAMPL team presented a concept demonstrator at the past Hannover Fair.

“The process starts with the generation of the digital 3D print data and the exchange of the data with a 3D print service provider,” notes the project outline. “[A] digital license management based on Blockchain technology will be integrated into the data exchange solution OpenDXM GlobalX of PROSTEP AG… Blockchain technology is also applicable to the representation of transactions in the sense of licensing. Here, instead of a bitcoin, a printer obtains the license to print a component.”

“We want to use the blockchain to mediate between designers, print service providers and end users, thus making license management safer — from generating print data to the exchange [between] service providers and the marking of workpieces, for example by means of RFID chips,” explained Felix Engelmann and Henning Kopp, scientists at the Ulm Institute for Distributed Systems, in a recent interview.

The developers expect the SAMPL project to act as a pathfinder and open up new markets in the field of additive manufacturing and other areas of application in which the authenticity of product data has to be ensured.

In its announcement of the integration of blockchain technology in OpenDXM GlobalX, PROSTEP notes that 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize value-added chains such as prototype construction and spare parts management.

“When it comes to the globally distributed manufacture of components, it must be guaranteed that only authorized persons have access to the data, that only the original data is printed, and that this data cannot be misused to manufacture pirate copies following its authorized use,” reads the statement. “This is particularly important when security-critical components are involved.”