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If the first question that comes out of people’s mouths about blockchain or NFTs is “What exactly are they?” the second question is inevitably “Is this something I really need to worry about?”
If you’re an artist who makes a living selling art, the answer might be yes. But if you’re in the engineering world, the potential benefits are much less clear.
On the file
A quick introduction to these buzzing technologies is helpful here. Most people have heard of blockchain, a distributed ledger technology that serves as the basis for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, which first appeared in 2008. Blockchain is capable of recording transactions and to create an immutable record without participation of any kind. centralized authority such as a bank or government agency.
Blockchain also underpins non-fungible tokens – NFTs. Currently, NFTs are mainly used to show ownership of a particular digital object or file. Often it’s a 2D graphic, but it can be almost anything – a music file, text, video, or even a 3D file.
If you’re an artist, you can see where this could be useful: you can put your art up for sale, and a collector can purchase an NFT stating that they are the official owner of that artwork. (In theory, anyway – more on that in a bit.)
So how could this apply to the engineering software space?
‘I did it’
Unlike people in the art world, people in the engineering world don’t usually create 2D and 3D files just for artistic expression and then try to sell them. They create these assets because they intend to do something with these files, like designing and making a real real world object.
So hit one: not much use to be found for NFTs and blockchain on this particular front. But maybe there is another application in the field of engineering, perhaps around intellectual property and documentation of the product development process?
Imagine a manufacturer designing an innovative new bicycle. An engineer is in charge of the frame of the bicycle. During the development process, each time they create a new CAD file, they save it to the blockchain so that their work on this new product is documented on the blockchain. Years later, if they need to prove their work on this product for any reason, a permanent, publicly available record is there for everyone to see, and the engineer can say “I Do it”.
This sounds as a clever use case. But alas, this is where the “theoretical” benefits of blockchain quickly run into a few buzzsaws.
Not so fast…
To begin with, while there is a small handful of companies doing technology that does this sort of thing, they’re few and far between. In terms of the innovation-to-adoption curve, this field is still in its infancy – which is surprising since the underlying technology has been around for almost 15 years.
That’s not to say there aren’t many enthusiastic voices around the potential of blockchain and NFTs in the engineering world – but they don’t all have holy motives. If someone bought a shipment of Bitcoin or NFT for purely speculative reasons, they are likely to champion themselves anything having to do with blockchain and its potential as it indirectly benefits the investments they have already made.
Then there is the issue of the environmental impact of blockchain. Even the newest and most advanced blockchain protocols like Ethereum still consume gargantuan amounts of energy [subscription required] because they record and validate transactions in a distributed and decentralized ledger. With the “proof of stake” mechanism to validate entries, this power consumption is less of a problem, although it has other issues. The bottom line, however, is that on a rapidly warming planet [subscription required] in the face of a climate emergency, blockchain is a difficult technology to adopt unless transactions can be made radically more efficient.
All of this is to say nothing of the fact that much of what blockchain could enable the engineering space to do is already possible – and much more easily accomplished – via existing methods. Want to show proof of previous work on a product? Every time you check in your CAD file to some type of CAD or PLM system, there is an audit trail showing who accessed, created, or modified the file. Need an indisputable patent? There is a patent office that decides on these kinds of things.
While it might be nice to get an “official” NFT that says the work in a CAD file is officially yours, that NFT doesn’t mean you own it in a legal sense. It’s just a digital signature that means something in “the blockchain world” but doesn’t necessarily mean something legally.
The thing is, most things you can do with blockchain, you can easily do. without the blockchain using a centralized database. The only thing you lose is decentralization, which – frankly – may not be enough of an incentive for people to get into this new way of doing things, given all its drawbacks and potential inefficiencies.
Hope is eternal?
Obviously, the case of blockchain and NFTs is not a slam dunk in the field of engineering. But – there’s always a “but” with new technologies emerging – if you squint hard enough, you can see hints of its potential in several intriguing areas. One of them is smart contracts, which are basically self-executing contracts built into the blockchain.
These contracts contain a set of customizable instructions that allow the execution of specific actions if certain conditions are met. For example, you can create a smart contract that tracks a digital asset — like an NFT or other file — and executes instructions regarding payment, distribution rights, circulation rights, or other factors.
In this way, smart contracts go far beyond what we see in traditional PLM systems. Plus, they offer the ability to cut out a whole layer of middleman, which – in a world of more and more makers and creators – actually has significant value.
Another intriguing area for blockchains and NFTs centers around the digital virtual worlds being built to create the so-called metaverse. Blockchains and NFTs are central to how ownership is assigned and content is inserted into this space. Creating NFTs and putting them on the blockchain is central to creating this virtual infrastructure.
This could naturally lead to the need to integrate engineering assets into these virtual worlds, whether bringing data for review or releasing it at the end of the product development lifecycle when a digital asset is delivered. It may not be common at the moment, but over time it will be useful to monitor the demand for engineering data in these virtual worlds.
Maintain a healthy dose of skepticism for now
Blockchain and NFTs have proven to have interesting applications for artists or for people who just want to have fun with speculative assets. When it comes to engineering software, there are possible apps around smart contracts and powering the metaverse — but overall the jury is still out.
There’s not a lot of serious engineering work going on right now with blockchain and NFTs – and there may be good reasons for that. At this point, it’s mostly a solution in search of a problem, and it’s not clear that its use will become more compelling or viable in the future, in the absence of significant and fundamental changes. . For those in the engineering world wondering “Is this something I need to worry about?” The answer is: not at the moment. For now, a watchful but skeptical look at this evolving field will suffice.
Jonathan Girroir is Senior Director of Technical Marketing at Tech Soft 3D.
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