How Blockchain Can Re-Invent the Global Supply Chain
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 pmon.
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.