After it emerged in 2008, the technology behind the world's most notorious crypto-currency, Bitcoin, held court on the fringes, attracting attention mostly from startups and the financial services sector. However, it has recently started to receive a lot of attention as companies gradually realize it could be valuable for many other things besides tracking payments.
Simply put, a blockchain is a distributed ledger that sorts transactions into blocks. Each block is chained to the one before it, using sophisticated math, all the way back to the first transaction. Entries are permanent, transparent, and searchable, which makes it possible for community members to view transaction histories in their entirety. Each update constitutes a new "block", added to the end of the "chain" – a structure that makes it difficult for anyone to modify the records at a later stage. The ledger allows information to be recorded and shared between large groups of unrelated companies and all members must collectively validate any updates – which is in everyone's interest.
To date, much attention and money has been spent on financial applications for the technology. However, an equally promising test case lies with global supply chain relationships, whose complexity and diversity of interests pose exactly the kinds of challenges this technology seeks to address.
A simple application of the blockchain paradigm to the supply chain could be to register the transfer of goods on the ledger, as transactions would identify the parties involved, as well as the price, date, location, quality and state of the product and any other information that would be relevant to managing the supply chain. The cryptography-based and immutable nature of the transactions would make it nearly impossible to compromise the ledger.
Now, a slew of startups and corporations are deploying blockchain to re-invent their global supply chain and run their businesses more efficiently:
1. For Maersk, the world's largest shipping company, the challenge is not tracking the familiar rectangular shipping containers that sail the world aboard cargo ships. Instead, it is circumnavigating the mountains of paperwork associated with each container. A single container can require stamps and approvals from as many as 30 parties, including customs, tax officials and health authorities, spread across 200 or more interactions. While containers can be loaded on a ship in a matter of minutes, a container can be held up at port for days because a piece of paper goes missing, while the goods inside spoil. The cost of moving and keeping track of all this paperwork often equals the cost of physically moving the container around the world. The system is also rife with fraud as the valuable bill of lading can be tampered with, or copied, letting criminals siphon off goods or circulate counterfeit products, leading to billions of dollars in maritime fraud each year.
Last summer, Maersk has sought cooperation from customs authorities, freight forwarders and the producers that fill the containers. It began running its first trials of a new digital shipping ledger with these partners, for shipping routes between Rotterdam and Newark. After signing off on a document, the customs authorities could immediately upload a copy of it, with a digital signature, so that everyone else involved – including Maersk itself and other government authorities – could see that it was complete. If there were disputes later, everyone could go back to the record and be confident that no one had altered it in the meantime. The cryptography involved also makes it hard for the virtual signatures to be forged.
The second test tracked all of the paperwork related to a container of flowers moving from the Port of Mombasa, in Kenya, to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. As both trials went well, Maersk followed up by tracking containers with pineapples from Colombia, and mandarin oranges from California.
2. Like most merchants, Wal-Mart, struggles to identify and remove food that needs to be recalled. When a customer becomes ill, it can take weeks to identify the product, shipment and vendor. To remedy this, it announced last year that it would start using blockchain to record and log the origins of produce – crucial data from a single receipt, including suppliers, details on how and where food was grown and who inspected it. The database extends information from the pallet to the individual package.
This gives it the ability to immediately find where a tainted product came from in a mater of minutes versus days, as well as capture other important attributes to make an informed decision around food flow.
Wal-Mart, has already completed two pilot programs – moving pork from Chinese farms to Chinese stores, and produce from Latin America to the United States – and is now confident a finished version can be put together within a few years.
3. BHP relies on vendors at nearly every stage in the mining process, contracting with geologists and shipping companies to collect samples and conduct analyzes that drive business decisions involving multiple parties distributed across continents. Those vendors typically keep track of rock and fluid samples and analyzes with emails and spreadsheets. A lost file can cause big and expensive headaches since the samples help the company decide where to drill new wells.
BHP's solution, which started this year, is use blockchain to record movements of wellbore rock and fluid samples and better secure the real-time data that is generated during delivery. Decentralized file storage, multi-party data acquisition and immutability as well as immediate accessibility are all aspects that will enhance its supply chain.
BHP has now required its vendors to use an app to collect live data – with a dashboard and options on what to do that are very streamlined to their respective jobs. A technician taking a specimen can attach data such as collection time, a lab researcher can add reports, and all will be immediately visible to everyone who has access. No more lost samples or frantic messages. While certain elements of the process are the same, the new system is expected to drive internal efficiencies while allowing BHP to work more effectively with its partners.
For now, in most first deployments, blockchain is running parallel with companies' current systems – often older databases or spreadsheets like Microsoft's Excel. The hardest part will be to create new business models. Deploying blockchain enterprise-wide means companies will often have to scrap their existing business processes and start from scratch. An endeavor not for the faint hearted.