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If the first question out of people’s mouths about either blockchain or NFTs is “What exactly are they?” the second question inevitably is “Is this something that I actually need to care 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 far less clear.
On the record
A quick primer on these buzzy technologies is helpful here. Most people have heard of blockchain, a distributed-ledger technology that famously serves as the underpinning for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, which first appeared on the scene in 2008. The blockchain is able to record transactions and create an immutable record without the participation of any kind of centralized authority like a bank or government agency.
Blockchain also underpins nonfungible tokens – NFTs. Right now, NFTs are primarily used to show ownership of a particular object or digital file. Oftentimes, this is a 2D graphic, but it can be almost anything – a music file, a piece of writing, a video or even a 3D file.
If you’re an artist, you can see where this might be useful: You can put your art up for sale, and a collector can purchase an NFT that says that they are the official owner of that piece of artwork. (In theory, anyway – more on this in a bit.)
So, how might this apply to the engineering software space?
‘I did that’
Unlike the individuals in the art world, people in the engineering world don’t generally create 2D files and 3D files just for the purpose of artistic expression and then try to sell them. They’re creating these assets because they intend to do something with those files, like designing and manufacturing an actual real-world object.
So, strike one: not much utility to be found for NFTs and blockchain on that particular front. But maybe there’s some other application in the engineering space, perhaps around intellectual property and documentation of the product development process?
Picture a manufacturer that is designing an innovative new bicycle. One engineer is in charge of the bike frame. As they go through the development process, each time they make a new CAD file, they check it into the blockchain so that their work on this new product is documented on the blockchain. Years down the line, if they need to prove their work on this product for some reason, a permanent, publicly available record is there for all to see, and the engineer can say “I did that.”
It sounds like a nifty use case. But alas, here is where the “theoretical” benefits of blockchain quickly run into some buzzsaws.
Not so fast…
For starters, while there are a small handful of companies making technology that does this type of thing, they are few and far between. In terms of the innovation-adoption curve, this field is really still in its infancy – which is surprising since the underlying tech has been around for almost 15 years.
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of enthusiastic voices out there around the potential of blockchain and NFTs in the engineering world – but not all of them have saintly motives. If someone has purchased a boatload of Bitcoin or NFTs for purely speculative reasons, they’re likely to champion anything having to do with blockchain and its potential because it indirectly benefits the investments they’ve already made.
Then there’s the matter of blockchain’s environmental impact. Even the newer, more evolved blockchain protocols like Ethereum still consume gargantuan amounts of energy [subscription required] as they record and validate transactions across a distributed and decentralized ledger. With the “proof of stake” mechanism for validating entries, this energy usage is less of a problem, although it has other issues. The bottom line, however, is that, on a fast-warming planet [subscription required] staring down a climate emergency, blockchain is a hard technology to embrace 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 to do – and much more easily accomplished – via existing methods. Want to show proof of prior work on a product? Any time you check your CAD file into some kind of CAD or PLM system, there’s an audit trail of who accessed, created or modified the file. Need an indisputable patent? There’s a patent office that decides those types of things.
While it might be nice to get an “official” NFT saying that the work in a CAD file is officially yours, that NFT doesn’t mean you own it in any legal sense. It’s just a digital signature that means something in “the world of blockchain” but doesn’t necessarily mean something legally.
Fact is, most of the things that you can do with the blockchain, you can easily do without the blockchain by using a centralized database. The only thing you’re losing is the decentralization, which – frankly – may not be enough of an incentive for people to cast their lot with this new way of doing things, given all its potential downsides and inefficiencies.
Hope springs eternal?
Clearly, the case for blockchain and NFTs is not a slam dunk in the engineering space. But – there’s always a “but” with new, emerging technologies – if you squint hard enough, you can see the inklings of its potential in several intriguing areas. One of these is smart contracts, which are essentially self-executing contracts embedded on the blockchain.
These contracts contain a set of customizable instructions that allow for the execution of specific actions if certain conditions are met. For example, you could create a smart contract that follows a digital asset – like an NFT or some other file – and executes instructions around payment, distribution rights, running rights or other factors.
In this way, smart contracts go significantly beyond what we see in traditional PLM systems. Additionally, they offer the potential to cut out an entire layer of middlemen, which – in a world of ever 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 the way in which ownership is assigned and in which content is populated into this space. Creating NFTs and putting them on the blockchain is core to the creation of this virtual infrastructure.
This could naturally lead to a need to get engineering assets into these virtual worlds, whether bringing data in for review or pushing it out at the end of the product development life cycle when a digital asset is delivered. It may not be commonplace at the moment, but over time, it will be worth monitoring what the demand for engineering data is in these virtual worlds.
Maintain a healthy dose of skepticism for now
Blockchain and NFTs have demonstrated that they have some interesting applications for artists or for people who simply want to have some fun with speculative assets. When it comes to engineering software, there are some possible applications around smart contracts and populating the metaverse – but on the whole, the jury is still out.
There’s not a lot of serious engineering work being done right now with blockchain and NFTs – and there may be good reasons for that. At this point, it’s primarily a solution in search of a problem, and it’s not clear that its usage will become any more compelling or viable in the future, absent some large, fundamental changes. For those in the engineering world wondering “Is this something I need to care about?” The answer is: not at the moment. For now, a watchful but skeptical eye on this evolving area will suffice.
Jonathan Girroir is senior manager of technical marketing at Tech Soft 3D.