The future is now: technology disruption in supply chains

(Source: IBM)

The technology of blockchain has been discussed at great lengths, ever since Bitcoin broke into mainstream contention a few years back. Though the idea is still largely perceived to be inherently associated with cryptocurrency, the advantages that come with adopting this technology in logistics and supply chain is immense – especially with regard to security and tracking.

Imagine the metamorphosis of grapes from being a juicy fruit to ending up in a wine bottle. The journey starts out from the vineyards, from where the grapes are plucked, dried, crushed and fermented, which is then sent out to the industry, coming out neatly bottled and store ready. It is quite obvious that the process chain is long and riddled with a lot of stakeholders at every turn, before it ends up on the consumer’s table.

As a consumer or a key stakeholder in the chain, the uncertainties involved in the process is unsettling, as there are no efficient methods to track the supply chain at every step of the way. Enter blockchain – an immutable ledger of publicly stored and distributed information, with the ability to bring transparency into the whole supply chain process.

Injecting blockchain into supply chains requires a concerted effort not only from the market players, but also from technology firms that have the technical wherewithal to develop technology that can expedite and simplify its adoption.

IBM in its flagship conference IBM Think 2018, has unveiled a chip which it claims to be the world’s smallest computer. This is relevant to the context of blockchain because this chip could pave the way for precise tracking and data relaying across the supply chain. The computer which is the size of a grain of salt has a few hundred thousand transistors, RAM, a solar cell and a communications module embedded inside it – providing it the calculating power of a chip from 1990.

The tiny chip is seen as an extension of IBM’s crypto anchor program, which it believes can prevent leakages in the supply chain and stop bad players trying to game the system. The idea is to create digital fingerprints that are tamper-proof, which can be embedded into products and linked to blockchain to make the records immutable.

The chip is a computing platform that can monitor, store, and analyze data, while being stuck to a product and can verify real-time the condition of the product being transported across the supply chain. This helps the key players to identify the authenticity of the product in question, flushing out the possibilities of counterfeit goods from entering the system.

The cost of manufacturing the chip is expected to cost less than ten cents, making it affordable to use across a variety of supply chains. Though it is still in the laboratory testing phase, IBM is looking to release the first version in 18 months. One of the possible use cases in the initial stages of this technology, could be to implement it in tandem with blockchain across industries like fashion, healthcare, and electronics – where there is an exceptionally high number of counterfeit products permeating the supply chain through different rogue players.

Innovation in the field of edible electronics could be combined with blockchain for extensively monitoring the food industry. Researchers from Rice University’s Smalley-Curl Institute and the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have successfully etched edible circuits on bread, which gives a 360-degree vision into the food supply chain – right from the farm to the fork.

The process involves the use of laser-induced graphene (LIG), which can carry electricity through carbon-rich products like bread and potatoes. This technology can allow manufacturers to tag edible items with RFID code, completing the tracking loop.

Supply chains are amongst the most vital cogs in the workings of the society, and it has not had a technology revolution for ages now. But with blockchain and tracking technologies sprouting up, the tidal waves of a disruption is incoming.

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Vishnu Rajamanickam, Staff Writer

Vishnu writes editorial commentary on cutting-edge technology within the freight industry, profiles startups, and brings in perspective from industry frontrunners and thought leaders in the freight space. In his spare time, he writes neo-noir poetry, blogs about travel & living, and loves to debate about international politics. He hopes to settle down in a village and grow his own food at some point in time. But for now, he is happy to live with his wife in the middle of a German metropolitan.