The success of blockchain in the supply chain depends on a number of factors, but among the most important is the development of global standards that streamline the communication process and provide clear-cut examples and terminology that defines document creation.
At the Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTA) Symposium in Chicago, members of the various working groups took turns updating the organization’s membership on where those committees stood in the development of standards.
Founded in late 2017, but with the heavy lifting beginning only last year, BiTA has so far published one BiTA Standard (BiTAS): the location component (BiTA STD 120-2019). According to the BiTAS for Location Component, it is defined as “a data structure used whenever a geographic location needs to be recorded on the blockchain. The Location Component, without any other information, contains all the information needed to determine a geographic location. The Location Component is used to define the location of any type of object or entity regardless of whether it is fixed (e.g. a building, port, rail station, etc) or mobile (e.g. a vehicle or shipping container, etc).”
BiTA announced it will participate in two upcoming proof-of-concept projects, one the organization will lead and a second in which it will test its standards as part of a port project. The Standards Review Working Group (SRWG) is involved in these projects. SRWG is a single point of contact for all BiTA working groups. It has been communicating with other global blockchain standards boards to ensure BiTA standards match up globally.
SWRG has done initial work with GS1 and ISO and is looking to collaborate with others, including IATA, Accord Project (legal), C4SCS (Center for Supply Chain Studies), RiskBlock (insurance) and GBA (Government Blockchain Association).
“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel and these guys are doing some excellent work,” Denise McCurdy, co-chair, said. McCurdy is principal consultant for Grove Gate Consulting and a doctoral candidate in blockchain governance at Georgia State University.
The BiTA-led proof-of-concept pilot will use a permission blockchain. The organization will also be involved with a project with the Port of Miami and the Florida Blockchain Foundation on a multi-modal blockchain-enabled platform. A shipping line, terminal operator, freight forwarder, airport organization, insurer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and customs are involved in the project.
“It will be a way to test our standards and see how they work,” McCurdy said.
Ben Kothari, CEO of Ampliflex and chairman of the BiTAS Shipment Working Group, said work continues for that group on defining a shipment for blockchain purposes, and members of the Bill of Lading (BOL) Working Group said the hope is to have a finalized standard by the end of the year.
“When you are building a standard, you are trying to do it with the least amount of information [and make it easy to follow],” Kothari said.
Kothari’s group started by defining what a shipment actually is. According to the formal BiTAS definition, a shipment is “goods or products that may be transported under the terms of an agreement authorized by two or more parties.”
A shipment is made up of “ship units” that are “moved at the same time and transported by means of a transportation service offered by the carrier or any transportation service provider (party) and requested by the shipper (party) who is at one origin (location) to one recipient (party) who is at one destination (location), and with respect to the total number of ship units and their respective piece counts and total weight.”
A shipment or ship unit is transported or stored in a “handling unit” (HU). These could include containers, boxes or pallets.
It sounds confusing, but for the purposes of writing a blockchain-enabled transaction, ensuring each party to the transaction is utilizing the same terminology is critical and allows the blockchain to function properly.
Within both the handling units and shipping units is specific data that makes the movement of the goods possible. These include:
- Measures (weight, dimension, climate, etc.)
- Parties (shipper, receiver, carrier, service provider)
- Equipment IDs
- Specific to the shipping unit component are the shipment ID, orders and package type.
With these data points now identified and documented as part of the standard, the Shipment Working Group is now looking to identify and define any missing elements and working to develop standards that are “tightly aligned with modern” API-driven architectures.
Some examples of potentially missing data are country of origin, financial and route/itinerary — all currently missing pieces of the “orders” component of the shipping unit.
A separate BiTAS Working Group is working to define what a “party” means. The reason this is important, explained Tim Wilson, chairman of the Party Working Group, is that each company or individual — shipper, receiver, truck driver, etc. — plays a role in moving freight, and the blockchain must have adequate and accurate information on who plays what role.
“The purpose is to [ensure] custodial control through the lifecycle of the shipment and ship units,” he said. Additionally, the group has defined an eventParticipant as the person or entity handling the shipment.
Wilson said nothing in his discussion has been fully approved yet, so determinations could change. As of now, any person or entity could be a party, he noted, but no one can be more than one party in a transaction. Within a transaction, Wilson said, there could be dozens of parties as each chain-of-custody handoff (e.g., from a shipper to a carrier) requires two parties. A shipment moving from a factory in China to a store in the U.S. could change hands six times or more on its journey, meaning there could be 12 or more parties.
Wilson said that if done correctly, the use of blockchain could eliminate time spent transferring documentation or ensuring customs paperwork is completed properly.
Bob Hitt, industry go-to market manager for Salesforce, and Richard Greening, global director of technology for the DDC Group, co-chairs of the Bill of Lading Component Working Group, had the most near-term news, suggesting that a working standard could be finalized by the end of the year.
“We’re really close,” Hitt said.
The challenge in the BOL group has been identifying all the terminology that populates bills of lading. That work is all but complete, thanks in part to the other working groups, many of which were working with the same or similar terminology, Greening said.
That terminology list has been consolidated and updated lists sent to the various working groups for feedback to ensure the Bill of Lading Component Working Group is using the same terms as the other groups.