The blockchain and 3D printing are popular topics in far different spheres of influence. However, when combined, the two have the potential to solve each other’s respective problems, catapulting them from something that is primarily in research and development to essential to every manufacturer. This article will explain how both work as well as outline five ways they can work together to transform business as we know it today.

All About the Blockchain

The blockchain is a revolutionary concept built upon what's called distributed ledger technology (DLT). This type of system stores and records data across multiple computers, or “nodes”. Every transaction that happens on the blockchain is verified by all of the nodes connected to it, making it secure and immutable. While cryptocurrency might be the most well-known application of the blockchain to date, its end-to-end transparency also proves valuable for other use cases such as supply chain tracking, voting, and secure financial services.

A Definition of 3D Printing

3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a digital model. It works by laying down thin layers of material in succession until the entire 3D model has been built up. This form of printing allows for greater flexibility and creativity when it comes to designing complex objects, as well as more cost-effective production than traditional methods like injection molding or machining. A growing number of manufacturers are pivoting to additive systems to remain competitive into and throughout Industry 4.0.

Five Ways the Blockchain and 3D Printing Can Work Together

Both promising technologies in their own right, the potential of 3D printing and the blockchain together is limitless. Computer scientists are already finding ways to put them to use in tandem, many of which speak directly to the current needs of the manufacturing sector. We'll explore five examples of how blockchain and 3D printing technology can combine for the greater good below.

1. Securing 3D Printable Files

3D printing is certainly capable, but to date, it hasn't been entirely secure. Manufacturers' main hesitation behind adopting the technology in their own facilities typically centers around theft and process sabotage - when a malicious actor is able to upload a compromised file, or steal from or alter the specifications of an existing design.

Such incidents can have disastrous and costly consequences, ranging from recalls to litigation. Researchers from the University of Exeter Law School recently patented a groundbreaking watermarking technology meant to appease this concern with help from the blockchain. Using cryptography to creators' advantage, it effectively watermarks 3D designs as they're drafted and sent to production. The embedded copyright information is completely secure and much harder to tamper with.

2. Protecting 3D Printing IP

Although this is somewhat related to the last point, it's also worth mentioning how cryptography can lend itself to the transparent management and authentication of 3D-printed designs. How?

The watermarking process we just explained works by assigning files a unique hash based on their content. No two are ever the same - even slightly adapting an asset's data will result in a whole new identifier. This effectively eliminates the risk of copycatting while providing an immutable record of the asset's provenance.

Counterfeiting aside, blockchain-based watermarks also make it easy to trace the asset's origin. A scan of the artifact can reveal its entire history; from when and where it was created, to who printed or transferred ownership over time. It's a simple but effective way to guarantee the legitimacy of 3D-printed products.

3. Managing Printing Runs More Effectively

In additive manufacturing, 'printing run' refers to the total of a set of prints (or models) produced from a single 3D file. It is often used to refer to the production of multiple identical parts, as in mass production. The only challenge is that it’s difficult to keep track of the number of prints that have been made from a single file, especially when an organization or individual has several 3D printers and printing runs happening at once.

However, blockchain technology can help with managing printing runs by assigning a unique token to each printed item. This helps to track the number of prints that have been made and can even be used for authentication.

It's also a much more viable way of implementing additional manufacturing for companies that would otherwise need to purchase full access and ownership of a particular file.

4. Bartering 3D Printing Files

What happens when you purchase the right to print 1,000 copies of a 3D file but only end up needing 900? Presumably let it all go to waste, as there is no way to recoup that money? Not with the blockchain. Its system of exchange can be used to buy and sell a lot more than just Bitcoin. 3D printable objects can also be bought, sold, and bartered between users as tokens.

The blockchain’s trustless system of execution is perfect for bartering 3D printable objects. The cost structure works differently than traditional methods because it's based on the current value of the 3D printable object. No more worrying about fluctuating prices or the need to negotiate in person.

Bartering via blockchain also does away with complicated contracts, as all transactions are stored on a level playing field that is secure, immutable, and transparent. All users have to do is agree upon a price that both parties can live with and the transaction will be recorded on the blockchain ledger in an instant.

5. Auditing and Tracking

The need for accessible records of transfer and production will never go away. In fact, manufacturers will only need them more as the industry around them evolves. Being an unchangeable record of events, blockchain technology can make this process easier and more secure than ever before.

Any transaction that takes place on the blockchain is publicly available for anyone to view or audit. This means 3D printing companies can easily track their data from production to delivery, no matter where it goes.

The fourth industrial revolution is here and it’s time for manufacturers to get on board with new technologies like 3D printing and blockchain. Both have the potential to significantly improve the efficiency, performance, and profitability of manufacturing businesses while bringing down costs and enabling new business models.