How Blockchain Can Re-Invent the Global Supply ChainJanuary 12, 2022
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.
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 mining 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.
3. BHP relies on vendors at nearly every stage in the mining process, contracting with geologists and shipping companies to collect samples and conduct analyses that drive business decisions involving multiple parties distributed across continents. Those vendors typically keep track of rock and fluid samples and analyses 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.
The encryption process itself is also a key factor. Blockchains like the Bitcoin one use deliberately difficult processes for their verification procedure. In the case of Bitcoin, blocks are verified by nodes performing a deliberately processor- and time-intensive series of calculations, often in the form of puzzles or complex mathematical problems, which mean that verification is neither instant nor accessible. Nodes that do commit the resource to verification of blocks are rewarded with a transaction fee and a bounty of newly-minted Bitcoins. This has the function of both incentivising people to become nodes (because processing blocks like this requires pretty powerful computers and a lot of electricity), whilst also handling the process of generating – or minting – units of the currency. This is referred to as mining, because it involves a considerable amount of effort (by a computer, in this case) to produce a new commodity. It also means that transactions are verified by the most independent way possible, more independent than a government-regulated organisation like the FSA.
Where things get really interesting is the applications of blockchain beyond cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Given that one of the underlying principles of the blockchain system is the secure, independent verification of a transaction, it’s easy to imagine other ways in which this type of process can be valuable. Unsurprisingly, many such applications are already in use or development. Some of the best ones are:Smart contracts (Ethereum): probably the most exciting blockchain development after Bitcoin, smart contracts are blocks that contain code that must be executed in order for the contract to be fulfilled. The code can be anything, as long as a computer can execute it, but in simple terms it means that you can use blockchain technology (with its independent verification, trustless architecture and security) to create a kind of escrow system for any kind of transaction. As an example, if you’re a web designer you could create a contract that verifies if a new client’s website is launched or not, and then automatically release the funds to you once it is. No more chasing or invoicing. Smart contracts are also being used to prove ownership of an asset such as property or art. The potential for reducing fraud with this approach is enormous.
Cloud storage (Storj): cloud computing has revolutionised the web and brought about the advent of Big Data which has, in turn, kick started the new AI revolution. But most cloud-based systems are run on servers stored in single-location server farms, owned by a single entity (Amazon, Rackspace, Google etc). This presents all the same problems as the banking system, in that you data is controlled by a single, opaque organisation which represents a single point of failure. Distributing data on a blockchain removes the trust issue entirely and also promises to increase reliability as it is so much harder to take a blockchain network down.
Digital identification (ShoCard): two of the biggest issues of our time are identify theft and data protection. With vast centralised services such as Facebook holding so much data about us, and efforts by various developed-world governments to store digital information about their citizens in a central database, the potential for abuse of our personal data is terrifying. Blockchain technology offers a potential solution to this by wrapping your key data up into an encrypted block that can be verified by the blockchain network whenever you need to prove your identity. The applications of this range from the obvious replacement of passports and I.D. cards to other areas such as replacing passwords. It could be huge.