3D Printing Meets Bitcoins Blockchain Technology

by Jason King on January 26, 2018

BitcoinDisruptive technologies like 3D printing have always fascinated me. 3D printing is turning the traditional manufacturing industry upside down.

It’s dramatically reducing prototyping costs, customisation costs and is even eliminating shipping costs.

Another disruptive technology which has been in the news a lot recently and which I’ve been learning lots about, is blockchain technology.

The very first and most well known application of the blockchain is of course Bitcoin.

The blockchain has many potential uses, other than for implementing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, many of which haven’t even been thought of yet. As with any emerging technology, 3D printing brings with it some new problems which up to now haven’t really been solved.

That’s what got me thinking, how can 3D printing benefit from blockchain technology and can the blockchain solve any of the issues that 3D printing faces?

At this point you might be wondering what 3D printing issues I’m talking about. Well, the obvious one is protecting the intellectual property rights for 3D printable designs. This includes the counterfeiting of safety or mission critical 3D printed parts, where lives could be at risk. We’ll talk more about this later.

What is 3D Printing?

For those who are familiar with this website and my work, you’ll already know What 3D Printing Is. However, if you’re not, then here’s a brief summary.

3D printing is the creation of 3D objects from electronic designs, by successively adding layer upon layer of material until a complete 3D object is created.

Think of it as being like an ink jet printer, but as well as printing in 2D along the X and Y axis, it prints layer upon layer along the Z axis too, slowly building up a 3D print, rather than just a 2D print.

If that made no sense whatsoever you can take a look at my Beginner Series to get a better idea of what 3D printing is all about and how you can even get involved at home if you wish.

What is Blockchain Technology?

If you thought 3D printing was tricky to understand, then the blockchain is even more complicated. However, I’ll try to explain the basic concepts of it so that you can grasp an understanding of it’s unique characteristics and how it can be used.

As Bitcoin was the first real world use for the blockchain technology, I’ll use it as an example.

The Problems of Traditional Banking

Traditional currency (known as “fiat” in the blockchain world) is controlled entirely by banks. Banks are the central authority whom we trust to take care of our money and to take care of our local and worldwide transactions.

So far so good, except that there’s 2 billion people in the world who have access to the internet, but no access to banking. So, banking is a privilege, which many of us don’t appreciate and billions of us don’t even have access to.

If for example we wish to send some money from the UK to Zimbabwe, the transaction costs and time involved are both going to be high. The reason I cannot give you specific numbers here is because often the numbers aren’t known until the transaction has taken place. We sometimes don’t even know what the cost is until the money is sent and significantly less money arrives at the other end, days later.

Cross border transactions can involve us trusting many banks, any of which can take fees, add time and reject the transaction or even withhold our money if they wish. This is unacceptable in this modern age, as the money should belong to us and be under our control.

Oh and then you have the issue of massive inflation in countries like Zimbabwe, where the money we send from the UK becomes practically worthless not long after arriving in Zimbabwe.

Clearly, what we need is an internationally recognised currency which is fast, secure, private, cheap and requires the trust of no 3rd party including banks. This is where blockchain technology is truly amazing.

Blockchain Could be the Solution

In short the blockchain is an open source, immutable, de-centralised asset management system, with no owner, no regulations and which cannot be shutdown by anyone.

BlockchainUsing Bitcoin as our example, imagine a database (ledger) of transactions and accounts, but for which there is a copy on thousands of different computers.

That’s what Bitcoin is and that’s why it cannot be shutdown without shutting down the entire internet.

The ledger is immutable which means once a transaction is in the blockchain it is set in stone and cannot be changed or removed.

The technicalities of how this is achieved involves such things as cryptography and proof of work, which are beyond the scope of this article.

However, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin which use the blockchain are de-centralised, fast, secure, cheap, private and are beyond the control of authorities like governments and banks. This gives the power back to the people.

If you’re interested in the details of blockchain then although I could explain them here, but they can become quite complex so it’s best to hit Google and do a little more research, or try Coindesk which is a great place to learn more.

What we should appreciate here though is that although the blockchain is mostly used for managing currency, the blockchain can and is being used to manage other assets for which we need secure, immutable traceability. This can include anything, even 3D printable designs and physical objects.

3D Printing and Intellectual Property

As 3D printing starts to become more Mainstream it brings with it some of it’s own issues. Just as cryptocurrencies enables criminals to move money around freely and untraceably, 3D printing enables anyone to freely scan and 3D print designs who’s intellectual property rights belong to someone else.

The point here is that any new technology has it’s downsides as well as it’s benefits, cryptocurrencies and 3D printing being no exception.

As I mentioned in the introduction, the purpose of this article is to discuss a little about whether blockchain technology can solve the issue of intellectual property in the 3D printing world… and the answer appears to be yes.

Expensive, luxury physical goods have always fallen victim to counterfeiting. This is nothing new, but what is new is a crypto token called VeChain. One of the benefits of this token (a token is similar to a coin in the crypto world) is that it utilises the blockchain to keep track of and provide full traceability of luxury goods.

Using an RFID chip embedded into each item a mobile app or NFC reader can read the details and reveal the full lifecycle of the item, retrieving it from the immutable blockchain. VeChain is also being used to provide full traceability of pharmaceutical goods, to ensure they’re not counterfeits.

So, if the blockchain is already being used to prevent counterfeiting of physical goods, why not use it to control the 3D printing of electronic designs and maintain the integrity of intellectual property rights?

Secure Additive Manufacturing Platform (SAMPL)

SAMPL is a German project, which will bring 3D printing and the blockchain together to help eradicate unlicensed 3D printing of parts. They’re already in partnership with Airbus and Daimler and will implement a comprehensive security solution (or chain of trust) so that parts can be traced right from the design, through secure 3D printers and then to the physical 3D printed parts themselves.

Like VeChain mentioned earlier the 3D printed parts will then use an embedded RFID chip to continue the traceability while the part is in the physical world.

Personally I think this is a great example of how the blockchain can be used to provide complete security and traceability right from design to the final 3D printed part being used in the real world. For safety or mission critical applications, like aircraft and automobile parts it ensures that all parts are genuine.

This kind of traceability also ensures that parts can be 3D printed on demand but the number of parts can also be recorded so that the original designers are adequately compensated and their intellectual property rights are not breached.

Recently Navy Lieutenant Commander Jon McCarter expressed a real interest in using blockchain technology in a similar way as described above, to ensure the integrity and security of 3D printed parts in the field. No doubt we’ll see the military using blockchain technology very soon for their 3D printed parts.

The Genesis of Things

Another company I found during my research is The Genesis of Things, who seem to be integrating 3D printing and the blockchain in a similar manner to the above.

The Genesis of ThingsThey intend to create a distributed global factory, connecting parts to 3D printers to customers using the blockchain.

Imagine a decentralised combination of Thingiverse and 3D Hubs and you won’t be far from what these guys are trying to create.

All stakeholders including those providing the designs and the 3D printers can be paid automatically using cryptocurrency and smart contracts.

If you haven’t heard of smart contracts before then I’ll try to summarise them here, because I believe they’re another fantastic use for the blockchain.

Bitcoin is really just a currency, but Ethereum is the next biggest blockchain platform (at the time of writing this) but it isn’t just a currency. Ether is the currency which runs on the Ethereum platform, but the platform itself allows the creation of smart contracts too.

Smart contracts are basically a Von Neumann complete language which allows potentially complex contracts to be setup and executed automatically on the block chain.

So, for example a smart contract could be created on the blockchain which says something like the following:

IF (Design123 is 3D printed on Printer456 for Customer789)
 DEBIT Customer789 XXX amount
 PAY Design123 owner YYY amount
 PAY Printer456 owner ZZZ amount

This is a very simplistic pseudo code for this scenario, but it helps explain how a simple smart contract can be created in the blockchain and be automatically enforced. The Genesis of Things intend to use smart contracts like this and it’s exactly the kind of scenario the Ethereum blockchain platform was designed for.

I’m not entirely sure that The Genesis of Things will be using the Ethereum platform, but it’s very likely and they do reference the Ethereum platform quite a lot in their White Paper.

The GCC Cryptocurrency

Whilst searching for a tradable cryptocurrency that combines 3D printing with the blockchain I came across The GCC Coin (GCC). It’s only a small coin right now and is ranked 597 on CoinMarketCap at the time of writing this, with Bitcoin unsurprisingly ranked number 1.

It would prove to be a very risky investment so personally I’ll leave this one for now. If you’re interested in investing in a crypto coin that integrates 3D printing with the blockchain then this is an option, but this isn’t investment advice. All I can say is never invest more than you can afford to lose and always do your own research before investing in anything.

I won’t say much more about this coin, but it’s just another example of how 3D printing and the blockchain are coming together to solve some of the issues that 3D printing and “fiat” currencies are facing.

How to Become Involved in the Blockchain

CoinbaseThe easiest way to become involved in the blockchain is to purchase some Bitcoin, Ethereum or Litecoin.

Most crypto people I know use Coinbase to get started as it’s quite simple to use.

Coinbase allows you to exchange your traditional “fiat” currency, like dollars or euros into some of the main high ranking cryptocurrencies.

Once you have some Bitcoin, Ethereum or Litecoin you can then transfer some of it to an exchange like Binance, where you can then buy and sell hundreds of different smaller “alt” coins.

I use both of these myself so the above two links are referral links. If you use my Coinbase link to buy at least $100 of cryptocurrency then we’ll both be credited $10 of FREE Bitcoin, so it’s win win. I’ll leave it with you though as crypto markets are highly volatile and not for the feint hearted.

Cryptocurrency for Beginners Udemy CourseIf you want to become super confident in all aspects of cryptocurrency, then I’ve created a Cryptocurrency for Beginners 2018 course on Udemy and am offering a massive discount for my readers.

Feel free to check it out, watch the free previews and let me know what you think. I’m sure you’ll love it!

Anyway, as 3D printing and blockchain technologies progress I’ll hopefully be writing more about the integration of these two very interesting and disruptive technologies.

Thanks for reading and happy 3D printing/blockchaining.

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