At DSI, our commitment to Digital Transformation through our eForms Lightning System allows companies to record digital information about assets, processes, and Standard Operating Procedures ( SOPs). The system uses a traditional relational database to keep a ‘rolling’ operations ledger against these assets.
What we mean by ‘rolling’ is that we only write to this database table and never edit data once it is in the table. Immutable if you will……. We allow our system to append information to the digital assets and then like an accountant’s financial transaction ledger, the system can replay every item ever written against the asset. A fully transparent database table of everything I need to know about the assets, procedures, or SOPs. Nice….
Collecting Factory Floor and Manufacturing Data
If a company needs to record batch record information for manufacturing production lots, these digital transformation systems are what are needed to capture that data. In manufacturing, we hear terms like Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) and Distributed Control Systems (DCS). These systems traditionally store Batch or Recipe information that can then be used as a record keeper for production information. This information may include initial process set point parameters, alarms and events, raw material information like QA status codes and usage quantities. All of this information gets recorded to process control databases.
A challenge for IT personnel supporting manufacturing is the assembly of this data into one congruent format so that it is available for review and can stand as a permanent record of the production or manufacturing lot. Data Integrity is the term being used quite often these days. Making this data available to the business, customers, and to regulatory agencies is an ongoing challenge. Protecting the data so that it is always available is a complimentary challenge that accompanies the congruency.
Protecting your Manufacturing Data
Traditional database tables are fantastic for recording data. IT organizations will then spend a good portion of the operations budget planning for, simulating, executing, and performing disaster recovery and business continuity procedures to ensure that the data is protected and available.
IT professionals have many tools available to help with backup procedures. In modern relational database systems, SQL Clusters and replication can help keep your data in a position where the system never goes down. These systems can be highly available and expensive since the IT staffs take it upon themselves to maintain these systems. Infrastructure, licensing, and IT personnel costs all add to the complexity of maintaining and keeping the data safe. Ouch!
The Next Step….
There is an entire industry of IT services that will give your company assurances that you can both store your data and keep it safe. Companies will pay up for these services to guarantee business continuity.
As an industry, can we look forward to a world where both the collection of data and the safety of data is reduced to a part of the infrastructure that is at worst available and best guaranteed? I think we can. A system that is part of the network for the Logbook, MES, and DCS systems to count on……. The Blockchain.
Embracing the Blockchain
The Blockchain got a lot of press in 2017. You may not be using one, but you probably have heard of the Blockchain. Bitcoin, the internet currency, is single handedly responsible for making the Blockchain a headline grabber this year.
Let first examine what a Blockchain is before we talk about Blockchain Clients. The Blockchain is simply a database of keys and data that are recorded on all nodes participating on a Blockchain network. When data is stored on the Blockchain, that data is replicated to all the other nodes. This is done by exchanging data using a peer-to-peer protocol. Once one node receives data, the nodes that are part of the Blockchain compete to make sure each node has the same data as the next and that the data is exact and correct.
This peer-to-peer network can have as many nodes as a company prefers to have a series of replicated databases – your database of record - that will give the assurance that data will always be available. Wow! Complete data replication by simply bringing a node online. No subscriptions, no SQL clusters, no complicated software installations. Bring a node online and you have data replication. Bring lots of nodes online and you get a database that never goes down.
Companies and organizations have the choice of using a public Blockchain like Ethereum or BlockRx or for a fully private Blockchain, a blend of both onsite and offsite servers (AWS, Azure, Digital Ocean, etc.), running an application like Multichain.
Just like you wouldn’t write your own Relational database like MySQL or Postgres, you will not be writing your own Blockchain. These systems are available as open source. The Bitcoin core software is available if that is something you would like to try. Mutlichain, the open source private Blockchain system, is indeed based on the Bitcoin core software.
It is important to realize that the Blockchain is not the end all solution to all the IT challenges the manufacturing industries face. But when a running ‘ledger’ of data is required for proof of data or implied trust of data without third party verification, the Blockchain could be the answer.
Your Keys to the Kingdom - Blockchain Clients
Making a commitment to the Blockchain is the first step in freeing your company from expensive infrastructure and costly procedures for backup and data retention. Hardware commitments are still necessary, but the software, with its peer-to-peer design, is easy to replicate from node to node.
If the Blockchain is the server, then the factory floor applications (i.e. Logbook System, DCS, MES) will operate as the Blockchain clients. In the Bitcoin Blockchain, the clients are referred to as ‘wallets’. Wallets are the User Interface (UI) for reading and writing into the Blockchain. With Bitcoin, a wallet will allow a user to spend and receive the cryptocurrency and it will also maintain a small database of ‘private’ keys for the owner of the wallet in order to protect the assets on the Blockchain, the Bitcoin owned by the user of the wallet.
For the factory floor of the not so distant future, process control and logbook systems will act as ‘wallets’ to the Blockchain to keep track of a company's digital assets. From shop floor sensor data (automatic) to manufacturing batch record information (automatic or human entered), the Blockchain client software is the bridge to the Blockchain.
The Blockchain has a purpose and a place. The Production systems have their place. Storing the final production data that makes up the material or product trace information into a consistent format for all participants and industries sounds like an innovative idea when approaching the concepts of increased productivity, transparency, and awareness. As automation engineers taking care of the factory floor, we need to make an investment that will have years of life and have a payoff to the business.
As the eForms Lightning System introduces its Blockchain Wallet software in 2018, we will be posting more information on the uses and benefits of the Blockchain. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to everyone