3D Software

New GE patent for additive manufacturing blockchain points towards industrialisation of 3D printing

Our series looking at trends in additive manufacturing for end-use production highlighted the increasing industrial of AM, but identified several areas where hurdles are yet to be fully overcome. Of these, verification and validation of additive manufactured components is seen many in the 3D printing industry as a significant barrier to the widespread adoption of the technology.

A recently published patent from GE describes one approach for maintaining security over digital assets. The system described in a document filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office makes use of a distributed ledger, specially a blockchain.

A metal 3D printed component made by GE Additive. Photo via GE
A metal 3D printed component made by GE Additive. Photo via GE.

A chain of blocks?

Most people are now familiar with the idea of crypto-currencies, whether through Bitcoin, Ethereum or other digital tokens. Behind these digital currencies is a blockchain. The blockchain is a record of when the token was created, how it was created and other data including transaction information – in this way a blockchain serves a similar purpose to a traditional ledger. However, a blockchain has an additional level of security in that rather than residing in a single location it is distributed.

Distributing the ledger means that someone with malicious intent to alter the records would not face an easy task. GE describes an additive manufacturing blockchain system as follows,

An additive manufacturing device configured to implement a distributed ledger system, the additive manufacturing device comprising: manufacturing hardware configured to generate an object via an additive manufacturing process; and a controller configured to: receive a build file comprising instructions for controlling the manufacturing hardware to generate the object; receive a material identifier indicating a particular lot of manufacturing media; validate the build file and the material identifier via a distributed ledger to verify at least one of an author of the build file or an origin of the particular lot of manufacturing media; control the manufacturing hardware using the build file to generate the object using the particular lot of manufacturing media; and in response to completion of the generation of the object, generate an object manufactured transaction to the distributed ledger indicating a result of the validation of the origin of the at least one of the build file or the material identifier.”

The difference between a centralized network and Blockchain. Image via U.S DoN.
The difference between a centralized network and Blockchain. Image via U.S DoN.

Blockchain and additive manufacturing

The combination of blockchain technology and additive manufacturing is an area that has, much like the world of cryptocurrencies, seen heightened interest in recent years. Global IT company Wipro has explored the idea of using a blockchain with 3D printing. In June 2017, the US Navy announced plans to introduce blockchain technology to secure additive manufacturing systems.

Also in June 2017, on demand manufacturing software enterprise Xometry received a $15 million investment from a consortium that included GE Ventures. There is no indication that Xometry will be using the blockchain technology described in the GE patent, however on-demand manufacturing would be a seemingly nature fit for such a process.

Array of on-demand parts created by Xometry. Image via Xometry.
Array of on-demand parts created by Xometry. Image via Xometry.

The patent, Methods and systems for implementing distributed ledger manufacturing history, was filed in December 2017 and published in June 2018. Recorded as United States Patent Application number 20180173203, the full details of GE’s blockchain additive manufacturing control system are available on the USPTO website.

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Featured image shows GE posters at Formnext 2016. Photo by Michael Petch.