Distributed ledger for engineered systems: hype or hope?

  • A new report published by The Alan Turing Institute and Lloyd's Register Foundation identifies significant potential for engineers to use distributed ledger/blockchain technology to improve safety
  • However, understanding of this new technology remains a major issue and increased education is needed in order to see it have impact in the engineering sector

Distributed ledger technology - often referred to interchangeably with 'blockchain' - has become big business. Financial services are pouring investment into it in the wake of the famous bitcoin currency, and there are many more industries keen to capitalise on this new digital system.

However, do we have a full enough understanding of the opportunities and limitations of this infant technology? How far is distributed ledger technology applicable in major engineering sectors such as manufacturing, energy, transport and infrastructure?

A report published today by The Alan Turing Institute and Lloyd's Register Foundation found:

  • There are obvious challenges within engineering where distributed ledger could help, for example its potential to provide transparency and traceability could help to assure supply chain provenance, maintenance cycles, and the monitoring of Internet of Things networks, enabling industry to quickly identify fraud and identify when something goes wrong.
  • However, there is significant confusion around the understanding of what distributed ledger is which could have serious implications for business. Part of this stems from the terminology, with many people using the 'blockchain' term as a catch all for a range of system technologies.
  • There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Many engineering systems are not 100% digital, and distributed ledger needs to be adapted to cater for industries with physical, as well as digital components.
  • The scalability of distributed ledger also needs to be carefully considered in order for it to apply to the engineering sector, which often requires processing of vast quantities of data.
  • The report calls for education and more support from standards bodies to define and professionalise the technology.

Gary Pogson, author of the report, commented: "We spoke to a wide range of industrial professionals and researchers to inform our report. It's clear from this research that distributed ledger technology could provide real benefits within certain areas of engineering. However, in order to cut through the hype, a greater understanding of the range of potential system configurations and their capabilities is needed, together with practical implementation of real case studies that demonstrate impact to potential investors.

"I hope this report is the first step in beginning this process, and I look forward to working with Lloyd's Register Foundation, The Alan Turing Institute and the wider engineering and data science community on taking the recommendations forward."

This report is published following a six-month research project undertaken at The Alan Turing Institute as part of their programme with the Lloyd's Register Foundation on data-centric engineering. For more information, visit turing.ac.uk/data-centric-engineering.

Download the Insight report on distributed ledger technologies.