Supply Chain Management in the 21st Century—The Case for Blockchain
When we purchase goods, from food to clothes to cars, we often forget that our transaction represents one small final step at the end of a long and complex supply chain. Effective supply chain management is a crucial and demanding commercial exercise. Yet, the supply chains of today have evolved far beyond their relatively static and linear character of several decades ago, and new approaches are needed.
This is where Blockchain comes in. We explained the basics of Blockchain in an earlier article. Although the applications of Blockchain are numerous, there are few as compelling as its use in supply chain management. It isn’t purely a matter of theory either; global powerhouses such as BHP Billiton, Walmart, Maersk and IBM have all made moves to utilise Blockchain in their own supply chains.
The changing nature of supply chains
Whichever way you look at it, supply chains are evolving are much more dynamic than they once were. Supply chains are now constituted in much more expansive and complex networks, comprising multiple parties dealing with particular variants, components or stages of a product.
Despite the great pace of change the core frameworks underlying supply chains have not necessarily been adapting. Businesses have been relying on the same technologies for years, some of which are becoming outdated and ill-suited.
The promise of Blockchain
Blockchain technology presents a unique opportunity for businesses to rethink the way they manage their dealings with suppliers and manufacturers. The potential applications of Blockchain in this regard are virtually boundless, but the key uses essentially revolve around tracing products throughout their lifecycle.
Blockchain can be used to keep real-time and essentially ‘gapless’ records of a product’s movements, tracking its unique identifier through every assembly, modification, process, transit, and transfer. By ensuring an instantaneous and immutable record is created every time a product changes hands—all of which is recorded in the one place—the scope for the errors, costs and delays associated with intermediaries radically diminishes. Not only does this have commercial benefits for the parties involved, it can lend itself to other functions, such as verifying product certifications (e.g. fair trade, organic).
The benefits of using Blockchain in this way are inherent in the technology itself. Reliance by all parties on a common, tamper-proof and real-time record of a product’s lifecycle not only eases administrative burden and reduces the need for audits, it promotes transparency. The requirement for ‘consensus’ between the different parties in the distributed network means that every transaction is validated, so disputes should arise less often. Consumers will be able to have confidence in the provenance of the products they buy.
In theory, Blockchain is an ideal solution to the changing needs of supply chains. However, it is not quite that simple—Blockchain is, after all, still an emerging technology. Though the potential benefits are enormous, there are some key challenges that must be considered.
Challenges on the horizon
Implementing a new technological framework underpinning large and complex supply chains will require time and money, not only in terms of system overhauls, but in terms of retraining staff, hiring new personnel, developing outsourcing relationships, and so on. Exactly what the costs will be isn’t yet clear, as we don’t have a many examples of relevant scale. Given the recent uptake by larger organisations it will certainly be a space to keep an eye on.
Written by Shaneel Parikh and Bryce Robinson.