Blockchain could boost Aerospace and Defence digital thread performance

23 July 2018 5 min. read

A global survey of senior executives in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific has found that Blockchain technology is increasingly being used to extend the digital capacity of organisations across all industries. However, the report finds that close to the entire Aerospace and Defence sector could be doing more to leverage Blockchain, which could help to boost digital twin and thread procedures.

Digital twin refers to a digital replica of physical assets (physical twin), processes and systems that can be used for various purposes. The digital representation provides both the elements and the dynamics of how an Internet of Things device operates and lives throughout its life cycle. Digital thread is a communication framework that connects elements often left in the siloes of manufacturing processes and provides an integrated view of an asset throughout the manufacturing lifecycle, enabling the flow of information across the entire value chain from OEMs to suppliers, partners, and operators. The concepts of the digital thread and digital twin have both traditionally been spearheaded by the military aircraft industry in their desire to improve the performance of future programs. They apply lessons learned through these digital technologies to current and upcoming programs.

While these concepts and technologies are gaining interest beyond their origin – converging with the digital manufacturing and cyber-physical system goals of Industry 4.0 and Smart Manufacturing – it is not particularly surprising that they are still most commonly used in the Aerospace and Defence realm. According to a survey by global consultancy Accenture, 97% of Aerospace and Defence organisations use or evaluate digital twin technologies as a core component of their product innovation process. However, Accenture’s research also suggested that in order to fuel additional growth, the sector could do more to “build new business models based on differentiated and value-added services that leverage their products as platforms” – in other words, to further their use of digital thread.

Blockchain use cases in the digital thread

However, realising the digital thread is easier said than done, as sharing complex and unstructured data across the extended enterprise by bringing together multiple organisations to share information in a secure fashion – while maintaining design, build, and maintenance authority – is usually a complex and lengthy proposition. As Aerospace and Defence players bid to move toward this end goal, Accenture’s survey of a portion of the sector’s OEMs and major suppliers uncovered two dominant evolving models of data ownership to support use of the digital thread. Either centrally managed digital threads controlled by an overall design entity, or digital threads based on shared data ownership across the extended enterprise.

The former, centralisation, might come as second nature to militarily oriented organisations, and be conceptually simple, however in practice it is complex and costly. According to Accenture, the model imposes a high cost of ownership, thanks largely to an unwieldy system of integration points across many Aerospace and Defence organisations, while making it difficult to extend the model outside the enterprise to partners. As a result, more organisations are turning to the shared model, for which Accenture believes Blockchain is a possible game changer. This is because it can help realise the shared data model, while providing for control of design, build, and support authority, as well as security.

The blockchain journey

Having come to prominence as the technology underpinning Bitcoin, blockchain initially made its presence felt in the financial sector. It has since made waves in the freight and logistics industry as a method of quality control and fraud prevention, while clients in every sector from insurance to retail to energy are pressing their consultants for advice on how to exploit, or defend themselves, from its disruptive impact.

According to Craig Gottlieb, Innovation Lead for Aerospace and Defence at Accenture, compared to traditional approaches to data sharing and security, “blockchain is the more exciting; it offers the flexibility of keeping the data closer to the source, and with the cryptography involved, we believe it provides distinct advantages.” He added, “Blockchain, digital twins, and digital threads are coalescing into a powerful combination of technologies that will launch the industry to higher levels of performance, data veracity, security, and efficiency.”

Accenture also listed a six step guide for entities in the Aerospace and Defence realm looking to adopt Blockchain solutions to boost their twins and threads efforts. First, groups should look to discover what others, including competitors, are doing with Blockchain via a market scan, to understand what needs the technology can address. Then, companies should move to design and plan their leveraging of Blockchain, before the mid-point of using a proof of concept. What is learned at this stage can be translated into the pilot phase.

When piloting, firms should look to continue learning about use cases for the technology, and build these strengths into the company’s roadmap for transitioning into Blockchain use. After a successful pilot period, firms can look to scale the results across larger segments of operation, eventually creating end-to-end Blockchain solutions by making them available to all eligible users. Finally, firms can expand the platform, once it is tried and tested, to additional elements of business, while making on-going improvements to work out any remaining bugs.