Supply chains revolutionized how our society runs, now supply chains are being revolutionized.
The name of the NEW game: blockchain! Supply chains can lack transparency and traceability. Two things at which blockchain is great at.
Systems work based on transactions. They are built on a distributed blockchain ledger that can record the transfer of goods as transactions. This transparency can ensure the cost of goods will more accurately reflect the actual cost of manufacturing them. Issues such as the use of forced labor and illegal sourcing of materials can potentially disappear. But despite the hype and its potential, it could take a decade or more before the technology achieves its full potential.
We have a few interesting examples. Provenance, a UK-based startup, works with clients so they can use its blockchain-based technology to “share your product’s journey and your business impact on environment and society.” Mining giant BHP Billiton is using the technology to track mineral analysis done by outside vendors. The startup Everledger has uploaded unique identifying data on a million individual diamonds to a blockchain ledger system to build quality assurances and help jewelers comply with regulations barring “blood diamond” products.
Walmart is working with IBM and Tsinghua University, in Beijing. They want to follow the movement of pork in China with a blockchain.
Long term what we should have in mind:
Potential to disrupt many industries
There are parallels between this global-scale distributed technology and previous technology-driven transformative waves, such as the web and the internet. Early technology adoption of blockchain will progress over the next three to seven years, but mainstream adoption across the supply chain and at scale is likely 10 or more years away. Similar to RFID in its early days, business processes and standards must be resolved before blockchain can reach its potential.
It is not a replacement for database tech
Many believe, but they are wrong, that blockchain is a replacement for traditional database technologies — it lacks the ability to create, read, update and delete information. For the immediate future, traditional database management tools and platforms will continue to prevail in supply chain, where data is created, maintained and consumed largely internally. Database capabilities, however, will increasingly need to scale and integrate across a broader number of supply chain network partners and ultimately customers. There is where blockchain is best.
You can’t just buy a solution!
There are no blockchain solutions to buy for supply chain use at the moment. There continues to be a lot of hype, with few even partially deployed and very limited prototypes, for which firmer results or tangible uses cases are still be reported. Only organizations that are especially risk-tolerant and early adopters of technologies should consider supply chain management blockchain initiatives over the next two to five years.
Stormy waters ahead
There are more challenges than we can mention here. Blockchain technologies and associated supply chain best practices bring adoption challenges, including a lack of standards, robust platforms, scalable distributed consensus systems, and interoperability mechanisms. Scalability across supply chains will need to be carefully planned.
Laws and regulations — which vary from country to country — also pose a challenge to global scaling of blockchain. Before governments can be convinced to support this effort, the industry must agree on best practices and standards of technology.
Adoption too late or too early as part of an extended supply chain and supply chain maturity progression may do damage to the entire organization.
Also, there’s the need to overcome embedded corporate thinking. Business leaders and organizations need to open up to the sharing of information with mainly unseen network partners.
Blockchain is presently at the peak of Gartner’s Hype Cycle, which means the next stop is the Trough of Disillusionment. In supply chain circles the technology is suddenly drawing serious interest, in part because of IBM’s recent push to go public with pilots including one with Maersk and another with Walmart.
As RFID promised to do, blockchain could one day provide certainty on the exact source of every ingredient in every jar, in every case, on every shelf and at all times. Was your palm oil sustainably sourced? Are the cherries in your ice cream organic? Are the avocados in your salad imported from Mexico? Also reminiscent of RFID, however, is a decent amount of uncertainty about the timing of the business case.
Envisioning a digitally enabled supply chain strategy is a must-do activity for everyone. Fitting blockchain into that strategy now means listening more than talking. Listen to your colleagues in corporate IT who are likely ahead of you since they’ve often faced this topic already with financial transactions. Also, listen also to vendors like IBM who are invested in establishing a market for this technology and can afford to find and foster pioneering users like Walmart and Maersk.
Blockchain may still be down the road, but its potential demands your attention now.