When an E.coli outbreak at Chipotle Mexican Grill outlets left 55 customers ill, in 2015, the news stories, shutdowns, and investigations shattered the restaurant chain’s reputation. Sales plummeted, and Chipotle’s share price dropped 42%, to a three-year low, where it has languished ever since.At the heart this crisis was the ever-present problem faced by companies that depend on multiple suppliers to deliver parts and ingredients: a lack of transparency and accountability across complex supply chains.
Now, a slew of startups and corporations are exploring a radical solution to this problem: using a blockchain to transfer title and record permissions and activity logs so as to track the flow of goods and services between businesses and across borders.With blockchain technology, computers of separately owned entities follow a cryptographic protocol to constantly validate updates to a commonly shared ledger. A fundamental advantage of this distributed system, where no single company has control, is that it resolves problems of disclosure and accountability between individuals and institutions whose interests aren’t necessarily aligned. Mutually important data can be updated in real time, removing the need for laborious, error-prone reconciliation with each other’s internal records. It gives each member of the network far greater and timelier visibility of the total activity.
In a nutshell, this is a global system for mediating trust and selective transparency. Although much attention and money has been spent on financial applications of the technology, 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. The technology can reveal hidden information and allows users to attach digital tokens — a unique, negotiable form of digital asset, modeled on bitcoin — to intermediate goods as they progress along the production, shipping, and delivery phases of a supply chain and as title to them passes between different players. This could give businesses far greater flexibility to find markets and price risk, by capturing the value that they have invested in the process at any point along the chain. What we end up with are dynamic demand chains in place of rigid supply chains, resulting in more efficient resource use for all.
Various endeavors have already started.Walmart is working with IBM and Tsinghua University, in Beijing, to follow the movement of pork in China with a blockchain. Mining giant BHP Billiton is using the technology to track mineral analysis done by outside vendors. And many more such examples.Advances in chip and sensor technology, which can translate data from the automated movement of physical goods, should greatly enhance these emerging blockchain systems. It could be especially powerful when combined with “smart contracts,” in which contractual rights and obligations, including the terms for payment and delivery of goods and services, can be automatically executed by an autonomous system that’s trusted by all signatories.
But this technology’s potential traceability and automation benefits don’t just pertain to things; it could also keep human beings in check. Staff and supervisors from different vendors can be granted special, cryptographic permissions, which, when placed into a blockchain environment, would appear as unique, traceable identifiers — preferably encrypted, to protect the employee’s personal information. This would allow all members of a supply chain community to monitor the activity of each other’s credentialed staff. This kind of provable, transparent credentialing will be especially important for additive manufacturing, which is central to the dynamic, on-demand production model of the so-called Industry 4.0 movement. These potential efficiency improvements, enabled by hitherto unavailable information, suggest blockchain technology could deliver vast savings for companies everywhere.
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- How is blockchain a global system for mediating trust and selective transparency?
- How is blockchain creating automation in industries?
- How is blockchain changing the rigid supply chains to dynamic demand chains?