Functioning as a platform for holding and exchanging digital currency was only the tip of the iceberg as far as blockchain technology is concerned. The technology has evolved beyond digital assets and has been proven to be able to provide numerous advantages spanning across many industries. This has triggered a large-scale adoption of blockchain based solutions by tech companies, who are now looking at ways they can combine the technology with their already existing infrastructure.
Having been plagued with many operational challenges, the supply chain sector is one area in dire need of new ideas and disruptive solutions. In the past, managing supply chains was a relatively straightforward process because commerce occurred on a local level; however, things have changed drastically over the years. The rise of globalization and international trade have brought complexity to supply chain management. Due to these new factors, several problems have emerged, and contemporary methods of managing the supply chain have no answer for these issues.
A Fractured Supply Chain
Complexity within the supply chain often arises because of problems associated with transparency, intricate production stages, and multiple geographical locations. With the traditional supply chain management systems, financial transactions between producers, sellers, vendors, and customers can take days or even weeks. In a bid to ensure compliance, companies often end up hiring bankers, consultants, and lawyers to handle contracts which significantly drives up costs and causes delays. Additionally, poor traceability systems make it almost impossible to track products back to their manufacturers leading to difficulties in eradicating defective products. All these issues make efficient management of the supply chain very cumbersome, prompting industry experts to hunt for solutions, and right now, blockchain based solutions seem like the ideal panacea for the supply chain challenges.
Why blockchain solutions?
Supply chain experts have praised blockchain technology as the ideal solution to solve supply chain process pain points. Deploying blockchain based solutions for supply chain management could help bring predictability, accountability, traceability, and transparency to the supply chain. Smart contract protocols could be utilized for facilitating and enforcing negotiations, and settling transactions between supply chain parties. This would reduce delays, cut costs, and eliminate the need for third parties such as lawyers and bankers.
Supply Chain Blockchain Platforms
Blockchain Food Safety Alliance
The multinational retail giant, Walmart, has been very interested in using blockchain to solve supply chain problems. In 2016, it was reported that the company was testing the viability of distributed ledger supply chain solutions for the food industry. A year later, a partnership with IBM was announced. Both companies teamed up to launch the Blockchain Food Safety Alliance; a blockchain-based initiative that focuses on improving traceability, tracking, and transparency within the supply chain of the food industry.
Senior vice president for IBM Industry Platforms, Bridget van Kralingen, expressed confidence in the capabilities of blockchain technology and identified it as the reason why IBM was excited about this partnership:
“Blockchain [technology]holds incredible promise in delivering the transparency that is needed to help promote food safety across the whole supply chain. This is a fundamental reason why IBM believes so strongly in the impact this technology will have on business models.”
The Blockchain Food Safety Alliance has two more partners; Tsinghua University National Engineering Laboratory for E-Commerce Technologies, and Chinese e-commerce company, JD.com. Together, the four partners will communicate with regulators and food providers to develop food safety standards and solutions for China.
By leveraging the IBM blockchain platform and expertise, Blockchain Food Safety Alliance hopes to build an expansive food supply chain network, providing food safety and an efficient supply chain management system based on distributed ledger technology. As new retailers and suppliers join the alliance, information exchange and new expertise contributed could very well lead to the development of blockchain-based solutions fully optimized for the global food industry.
Hyperledger, a project initiated by the Linux Foundation is one of the groundbreaking blockchain based solutions for the supply chain. Hyperledger is a global cooperative effort that pushes for the advancement of open source blockchain based protocols. As a business for blockchain initiative, Hyperledger hopes to build useful blockchain frameworks that will speed up the adoption of blockchain solutions for companies around the world.
The project has already given birth to many frameworks and blockchain based tools, including, Hyperledger Fabric, Hyperledger Iroha, Hyperledger Sawtooth and Hyperledger Burrow. Amongst the Hyperledger frameworks, Hyperledger Fabric and Hyperledger Sawtooth are positioned to tackle supply chain issues ranging from traceability to improved shipping.
– Hyperledger Sawtooth: The Sawtooth framework provides a platform for tracking a product right from the manufacturer to the consumer by leveraging blockchain technology and Internet of Things (IoT). With this combination, Hyperledger Sawtooth hopes to bridge the gap between the physical and the digital world. Under the Sawtooth framework, specially calibrated IoT sensors are attached to objects moving through the supply chain. These sensors are able to pick up vital information about the object’s tilt, shock, humidity and even its location. This data is then recorded on the blockchain and can be accessed by the consumer.
– Hyperledger Fabric: Hyperledger Fabric was contributed by Digital Assets and IBM. The framework consists of a permissioned ledger which stores the present status of all transaction requests. With the Fabric framework, participants can keep track of all shipment data on the blockchain. This approach will allow regulators and auditors to monitor, investigate, and validate transactional entries in real time. This will position the Fabric ledger as a single source of truth for shipment transactions.
These Hyperledger frameworks also provide data security since they function on permissioned blockchain platforms which only allow approved members to join the network. Hyperledger Fabric is being tested by IBM, while Sawtooth is already seeing good adoption from the seafood industry, as it is being used to track seafood products, building a trustless system for vendors and sellers.
Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTa)
The Blockchain in Transport Alliance was formed by several tech experts to serve as a platform for the development of blockchain standards and solutions for the freight industry. According to its website, BiTa’s goal is to bring together leading companies in the freight technology industries that have a vested interest in the development of blockchain technology. With this network of big businesses, BiTa is trying to create common standards for launching ground-breaking blockchain applications that will bring efficiency to the freight industry.
Since its formation, the Blockchain in Transport Alliance has expanded rather quickly as many big corporations have joined the initiative. Corporate giants like UPS and SAPS have enlisted as members of the alliance and are investigating ways they can help create systems that will boost transparency and competence in the shipping process while building trust amongst suppliers, vendors, consumers, and other supply chain participants. Other prominent brand name members include FedEx, Navistar, Werner Enterprises, and Salesforce.com.
Blockchain’s potential use cases in the shipping industry are numerous and could include vehicle maintenance, compliance enforcement, fraud detection, and theft prevention. For an industry that is often plagued with opaqueness and intricacies, the freight industry is in dire need of a blockchain solution that could help simplify processes and bring efficient management of the supply chain.
Having already gained the advantage of early partnerships and sponsors, the Singaporean blockchain startup, VeChain is now focusing on building solutions for supply chain management with the aim of creating a secure platform for recording and storing data, giving producers and consumers confidence in their products and restoring trust to the supply chain system.
VeChain hopes to give its users control over their supply chain system by providing a “360-degree” view of the supply chain which will have all data and components recorded on an immutable blockchain. With the VeChain platform, retailers and consumers will be able to access all data associated with a product, right from its point of creation until it gets to its final destination.
To accomplish this feat, the Vechain platform will make the products interactive by allowing the manufacturers to assign unique identities to their products, giving the network’s participants the ability to interact with the products and extract the desired information. Every member of the blockchain network will be assigned a unique private key for access to the network to help secure data and prevent breaches.
The current problems in supply chain management are solid proof that the current systems are not efficient enough. Creating innovative solutions will require some out of the box thinking and a little dose of disruption. The large scale promotion of blockchain based solutions by corporate giants demonstrates that blockchain might just be that agent of change needed to bring a fresh breath of transparency and traceability to the supply chain.