The 3D printing process offers several advantages. Prototypes can be manufactured quickly and cheaply. Storing spare parts becomes superfluous, as replacements with an exact fit can be printed on demand. However, these so-called additive manufacturing processes also entail risks.
For instance, components can be printed using lower quality materials by non-authorised individuals, which could present safety hazards. The joint project SAMPL (Secure Additive Manufacturing Platform) offers assistance. Together with partners from the areas of industry and research, computer scientists from the Ulm Institute of Distributed Systems are working on creating a new model for digital rights management based on blockchain technology. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) is providing 2.6 million euros in funding for the SAMPL project over a period of three years.
3D printing can be used for many different applications. Thanks to this technology, for instance, aircraft manufacturers around the world can produce spare parts based on standardised digital building sets. Patients benefit as well. Within the span of just a few hours, for example, a customised prosthesis can be generated from a 3D printer.
But how can cheap pirate copies, which can present safety hazards in some cases, be prevented and identified? The research team has joined two familiar processes - 3D printing and blockchains - into a continuous safety chain for additive manufacturing processes. "Our aim is to use blockchains to mediate between designers, printers and end customers in order to make the license management process more secure - from generating the printing data to exchange with suppliers, all the way through to product marking - for instance with RFID chips", explain Felix Engelmann and Henning Kopp, research staff at the Ulm Institute of Distributed Systems.