Role of Metadata and the Blockchain in Open Supply Chains for Distributed Manufacturing

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Orestes Chouchoulas:

"To keep up with these challenges, the new institutions need to be based on real-time data representing the open making supply chain. They also need systems to deal with vast sets of data, to automate processes, and to respond with speed to a huge number of distributed transactions. Blockchain, smart contracting, and data science can provide the technological tools to to build new applications on top of that data layer. So what should this data-driven foundation look like?

Let’s imagine that each unit of raw material, each component, and each product are accompanied by a set of metadata, encoding provenance, production history, specifications, certifications, and licences. Let’s also imagine that each tool and production process that affects the properties of materials, components, and products, must also be able to securely alter or append information to the metadata. From raw materials to completed product, this metadata will securely encode the history of processes involved, but also all the pertinent legal and financial information. This metadata could be physically attached to objects through a scannable unique identifier (e.g. through use of a QR code) that points to a secure and redundant blockchain ledger in the cloud.

In this way, the metadata of a plywood desk would encode information for the final product and all of its constituent parts, including prices, dates of manufacture, transportation routes and means, designer details, copyrights and licences, warranties from the maker and manufacturers, details of the CNC tooling process, verified measurements, information on the physical tolerances of the plywood, the chemical composition and properties of the glue that was used to bond the plies, and the provenance of each tree that was logged to make the veneers.

This information can be used to validate and verify the standards compliance of components and materials, and to select the appropriate parts to ensure the desired performance at the output of each step of the process. Applications could be built on top of this data layer, so that scanning the metadata tag could give you the right documentation for its use, or a calculation of the carbon footprint of the entire production process, or allow exploration of how the load capacity of the desk would change if it were modified with an additional brace.

The format of this metadata should be specified and further developed by an international consortium, ensuring interoperability and openness, and shepherding the standard into the future. The metadata tags will need to be securely editable, so that processes and tools can change them during the production process. JSON, a proven open standard, could be used to structure the information and allow modification and extension with simple code, while blockchain can ensure that the modification of metadata happens securely and correctly. Error checking and redundancy could be built into the metadata standard.

How can this metadata layer be used as the foundation to build new kinds of responsive and distributed institutions? How can it transform the design, production, sale, use, and disposal of tools and products? More importantly, how do we need to change the existing support infrastructure of supply chains to enable these changes?" (

Typology of Impact

Orestes Chouchoulas:

"A distributed manufacturing network supported by this metadata layer could have a transformative impact in several significant ways:

Material and energy efficiencies

On-demand production already carries the potential of dramatically reducing resource waste by removing the need to predict demand. The metadata layer could take these efficiencies further by allowing infinitely granular quality assurance. Take plywood as an example: beyond grading for the physical appearance of the facing plies, batches of plywood sheets undergo multiple tests (e.g. boiling, pressure, and shear tests) and inspections at the point of manufacture. Sheets that are within acceptable performance tolerances are marked as compliant and sheets that fail the tests are often discarded or recycled; a binary mark of quality. A metadata infrastructure would instead offer the option of marking all sheets with their particular levels of performance, to be selected as needed for particular uses.

What else could be possible given this sort of digital quality assurance infrastructure? Could the output product be verified automatically as a consequence of metadata-aware tooling and processes?

Parametrisation of design

Linking materials and component parts to particular specification metadata also unlocks outcome based design processes using parametric design software. Products designs will no longer need to address model use cases, but instead can be automatically customised to generate the necessary performance for the outcomes at hand. If a larger desk is needed, parametric design software will specify either more robust materials, or additional bracing to prevent excessive sagging. The metadata structure encodes the certified limits of each customised design, and therefore the conditions of their warranties. What would this mean for products that need to be customised by definition, like prosthetics? What would it mean for the apparel industry to have the potential to custom tailor any piece of clothing at the cost of ready-to-wear garments? And what are the possibilities for mass-produced items that have never been able to be customised for particular uses?

From retail to service business models

Being able to specify custom products for specific outcomes foreshadows a move from business models that sell predetermined products to outcome-based service contracts: from selling desks to enhancing workspace productivity for a growing company, for example. As the needs of the end user change, the service provider can adapt or replace products to suit, creating a long-term service relationship with the clients, and innovating their physical offerings in partnership. Insurance and warranties for newly conceived products can happen automatically as an operation on the metadata. But what could this mean about the future of product ownership? Could this also be heralding a move away from retail transactions for the transference of ownership to a new kind of DRM — the digital management of rights to materials, components, and products? And could the financing of products become contingent on digital warranties?

Continuous hackability and distributed innovation

With specifications of all parts of a product available on demand and automated certification, every product can become adaptable, reusable, and continuously hackable, without voiding warranties or losing consumer protection rights. In essence, this creates a massive distributed innovation engine for the improvement and repurposing of products. Coupled with open source licenses (that can also be embedded in metadata) the benefits of adaptations and improvements can be shared globally.

What implications would this have on the discipline of product design? How could this change design education, business models, and IP protection practices?

Democratisation of supply chains

When product design and fabrication becomes this responsive to specific local needs, supply chains can be structured around value creation at the point of use.

Adding the metadata infrastructure allows every user to become a designer and a maker with the same level of technical, legal, and institutional support that so far only large industrial concerns can afford.

What new business models could this enable? What new regulation models would they require? How could the right balance between innovation and regulation be achieved?

The introduction of a standardised data layer should happen across both open making and traditional manufacturing processes, enabling grafting, tweaking, customisation, and repair, without negating existing business models." (