Setting the Standard: Future of blockchain in the supply chain

May 24, 2019

A Q&A with EEA’s Supply Chain SIG Chair Tyler Mulvihill

Why did you start the Supply Chain SIG with the EEA?

I co-founded, which at the time was one of the first companies that was building real supply chain-based blockchain solutions. I knew that standards like EDI and GS1 greatly contributed to the coordination of supply chains and that blockchain would require the next generation of these standards. I was also concerned that if other enterprises were going to start building proprietary offerings, we would be back in the siloed database world we were all looking to escape.

There were three things we needed to do:

  1. Ensure that we could standardize data so that in the future, solutions could “talk” and “work” with each other.
  2. Ensure that the enterprise specification for supply chains met our needs.
  3. Develop a gathering place for everyone who had similar questions.

There needed to be coordination, and I wanted to facilitate that.

You initiated and are now Chair of the Supply Chain SIG. Tell us more about the group.

The priority of the SIG is to create a standards framework and help inform the EEA technical specifications. We aim first to create the framework that will help anyone create a supply chain standard. In parallel, we operate through a SIG-led use case development structure, which teases out standards that are needed to execute the use case. We then send those standards to the EEA Tech Spec Working Group to strengthen the specification.

Supply chain-centric companies also need to understand how the benefits of blockchain (e.g., identity, different privacy needs, transactions per second) will benefit their business. The Supply Chain SIG members are collaborating to understand the different use cases – what works and what has failed – so we don’t make the same mistakes.

How do standards fit into the discussion?

There are two ways to think about supply chain standards: those that affect all industries, and those that are industry specific. Industry-specific standards are unique to a vertical like healthcare or telecommunications. Industry-wide standards apply to the whole ecosystem. The Supply Chain SIG aims to tackle both types of standards to help all industries.

Since supply chains are global, how does that impact standards development?

Supply chains need to factor in laws that apply in each jurisdiction where an asset enters or exits. One example of a standard that could reduce friction inherent in global supply chains is proof of a physical location. If a supplier can prove where an asset is and therefore what jurisdiction it is subject to, then the laws could automatically apply. For a supply chain company, this means lowering risk premiums, reducing jurisdictional overhead, and leading to a more efficient supply chain.

The EEA Supply Chain SIG is also working on leveraging standards for identifying and defining structured data for enterprise blockchain applications pertaining to global supply chains. Supply chain companies are using older technology standards like GS1 (bar code standard) and EDI (messaging communication standard) to pass data between organizations. When a package is dropped off at a logistics company it is given a bar code and put on a truck for delivery. The idea is that by scanning the bar code, you can tell what it the package is, where it came from, and who it’s going to. The EDI messaging standard enables sending of messages from the individual who is giving them the package as well as the individual who will be receiving the package.

The challenge with this system is that the data is only sent “one up, one down,” so there is never full traceability of an asset. In addition, if any link in that chain breaks, the entire system breaks down, and backward traceability is lost. For example, if we talk about the food supply chain, if there is a safety issue, supply chain companies and regulatory organizations need immediate recall and the ability to trace the item to its origin to assess the problem. Current supply chains cannot scale and achieve backwards traceability in any reasonable amount of time. These challenges essentially dissolve with blockchain as a global ledger, where data is shared in a standardized way.

What about Internet-of-Things (IoT) and Big Data-enabled supply chain systems?

Two critical and actively emerging trends are IoT and data format requirements. In the example of shipping a yellowfin tuna internationally, how does that fish physically manifest on the blockchain? This requires a unique identity such as QR code, identifying tag, or bar code that can be digitized as data for tracking. To connect the physical to the digital, our SIG is exploring concepts like reputation, identity, wallets, storage, token issuance, and management. They’re all related, and once you start constructing use cases, you will need standards so that you can make use of the data that these devices will capture.

Tell me about Viant. You mentioned it is like build the supply chain in fifteen minutes with no coding.

Viant is a blockchain-based trust platform focused on traceability, transparency, and tradeability. Viant’s traceability platform allows a user to model business processes, define assets, add users’ roles and permissions, set up networks and, with the click of a button, generate smart contracts and user interfaces. This can take as little as 15 minutes. Viant is API enabled to allow for easy customization and integration, and we have developed a proprietary framework in which to build blockchain applications quickly. We have also built a transparency platform that helps manufacturers know that their supply chain meets their product goals and helps product managers share the story of their products to the consumer.