Roadblock: A reality check against the hyperbole of block chain in field service

Dec 13 • Features, Future of FIeld Service • 1745 Views • No Comments on Roadblock: A reality check against the hyperbole of block chain in field service

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Blockchain and its potential has been mooted in field service circles for years. Is it time we stop thinking big and instead build smaller use-cases before we lose sight of what’s actually important, the end-user? Mark Glover, Field Service News’ Deputy Editor finds out more.

In 2008, a person (or a group of people) known as Satoshi Nakamoto conceptualised the first blockchain. A year later, this digitised digital ledger was a critical accessory to the group’s (or his) headline act, the now ubiquitous cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

The impact of this decentralised digital currency on financial markets and a curious, confused society has been fascinating to follow. That the persona of the inventor or the inventors remains unknown adds to the plot.

Yet, without blockchain, the currency wouldn’t function. This smart ledger, driven by a peer-to-peer network has the potential to stamp itself on industry and in particular field service. But can the sector adopt the technology in a way that will ultimately benefit the end-user?

Firstly though, and apologies to all those who have a handle on the technology, what is blockchain? Scouring the internet for a simple definition is tricky, eventually, the excellent forward-thinking mission.com offered this: “Blockchain is the technology that underpins digital currency (Bitcoin, Litecoin, Ethereum and the like). The tech allows digital information to be distributed, but not copied. That means that each individual piece of data can only have one owner.”

The tech allows digital information to be distributed, but not copied. That means that each individual piece of data can only have one owner.”

Straightforward enough. But let’s expand it to industry. How can it fit into the aerospace sector and specifically a plane engine? Parties involved include the airline, the engine manufacturer and the service company all of whom are squirting data into that asset’s blockchain.

The jet engine is a high-end valuable piece of equipment, the blockchain systems enable a single, irrefutable history of that asset. The linking of parties (blocks) removes the requirement for inter-party consultation before extracting required information meaning critical decisions can be made quicker and more effectively. It’s also secure and visible to everyone and accurate and trust, therefore, is enhanced around the chain. The benefits are tangible. So why aren’t all companies rushing to implement it?

“Like all emerging technologies there are only going to be one or two applications that are going to come up for this kind of thing in the very early days,” says Stephen Jeffs-Watts, Senior Advisor – Service Management at IFS. Stephen is an expert in blockchain, a keen enthusiast of its benefits but warns that fields service shouldn’t get too carried away just yet, particularly as sectors are only starting to dip their toes in the murky blockchain water.

We have to try and bear in mind that it [blockchain] is also directly proportionate to the type of kit that’s been installed

“A lot of the use cases that are coming up at the moment,” he tells me, “are in very high-value assets and very highly regulated supply chains; in aerospace, defence, nuclear and very-high-end medical applications,” he pauses. “There aren’t too many Phillips Medicals out there.”

In field service, blockchain technology can potentially trace parts, verify assets and look-up maintenance and operations history, but according to Stephen, it needs to bed-in with modern hardware before its benefits can be felt. “We have to try and bear in mind that it [blockchain] is also directly proportionate to the type of kit that’s been installed,” he warns, “Are you really going to use blockchain to authenticate the asset history or the maintenance and servicing history for a ten-year-old piece of equipment?” Another pause, “You’re not.”

Let’s go back to the jet engine blockchain analogy; the engine itself is a high-end piece of equipment.

The airlines and engine manufacturer, themselves are high-end companies:  BA, KLM, Lufthansa, Rolls Royce, GE, Northrup Grumann, for example. All are big companies keen to monetise blockchain, the only real way to do this is through data-ownership but in a high-asset blockchain, this isn’t always straightforward.

Who owns the data from a jet-engine? Is it the airlines?

The thrust from their plane goes through that engine and what about linking that to the pilot who’s flying that aircraft and jet engine through the air? That’s the airline’s data too. They also have a hand in the plane’s load: the number of passengers and baggage, fuel etc. That’s also data from the airline.

The engine itself? Rolls Royce might run it on a power-by-the-hour contract, so it’s their engine, so do they own the blockchain data? Like that other revolution IoT, blockchain becomes an issue of data ownership. What can be done to grease the chains to make the process run smoother?

“You’re going to have to get industries and supply chains to actually come together and solve the underlying data ownership issue,” Steve offers. “There is going to have to be some kind of consensus; an informal consensus through co-operation; the introduction of some kind of industry standard or ultimately an enforced consensus through legislative means,

Be it an Industry standard or a regulatory framework, large-scale blockchain implementation ultimately needs sectors to work together, to come together in agreement and as Steve explains, it also becomes an issue of trust. “Let’s say there are ten people involved in the supply chain: the operator, the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), there may be a service operator; they’re all contributing data to that chain.

“But does the end operator actually have enough trust in the OEM to question if they are going to use their data and benchmark it against its competitors”, he ponders.

Issues around data-ownership, trust and unfit equipment unable to handle what is essentially a large-scale, shared google document are indicators that large-scale field-service blockchain implementation isn’t as close as we might think. Perhaps we are setting our sights too high? Maybe the use-cases should be carried out on a much smaller scale?

After all, cryptocurrency, the original thread of blockchain was designed for electronic financial transactions, not necessarily jet engines. Stephen agrees, referencing a well-known tracking device, he suggests we should keep things simple. “We could use blockchain like a glorified RFID tag that authenticates, verifies and gives you a reference point,” he says. “I can look at the blockchain and I can see who made it, when it was made, how it was transported.

“Where they may be just a couple of parameters about its last usage, you can look at that by a component-by-component type level, specifically in those cases where that kind of information is critical, or the authenticity is critical.

There’s got to be a realistic level of ambition and some specific use-cases that prove the technology and prove the value of the technology before there comes any mainstream adoption

“There’s got to be a realistic level of ambition and some specific use-cases that prove the technology and prove the value of the technology before there comes any mainstream adoption,” Stephen urges.

My conversation with Steve has been fascinating and his contribution to this article I’m sincerely grateful for. The insight he offered – most of which I’m unable to fit into this wordcount – was invaluable, yet despite all its potential of blockchain Stephen left me with a thought that goes beyond the blockchain hype: “So what?”

So what if an asset is pumping with blockchain data? All the customer wants is the device to start working again so they can get on with their business.

“What value does that bring to me as a customer,” argues Steve. “unless I’m in a highly regulated environment. When do you start loading up past-maintenance history? Is it good? Is it worthwhile? Probably not. So what’s the use-case that going to give killer value?

Steve continues from the end user’s perspective: “Great, you’ve got blockchain. What do I get from you having blockchain? What do I get from being able to prove every last working second of this particular piece of kit? Why should I care?”

It’s an excellent point that perhaps gets lost in this fourth industrial revolution we find ourselves in. Among AI, and IoT and machine learning and blockchain should we not just focus on the customer needs and their requirements? Or will we continue to pursue the hype?

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