Beyond cryptocurrency: Eight alternative uses of blockchain
As blockchain technology becomes increasingly advanced and more widely adopted, leading companies across a multitude of industries are developing new use cases, helping it depart from its traditional association with cryptocurrencies.
Acting as a distributed ledger system, blockchain is able to record transactions between two parties in an efficient, secure and permanent way, offering significant potential to be utilised in a number of different ways.
“Blockchain brings digital technology into real time computing systems management,” Wintergreen Research said, a company that has predicted that the global blockchain market will grow to over $60bn by 2024.
“It has the ability to change all aspects of the digital economy, including conducting business, delivering healthcare, shopping, enhancing education and learning, entertainment, and staying connected with a social world.”
Here are just some of the ways that blockchain is now being used across a range of sectors:
“Already used widely in the financial sector and being increasingly adopted across industries as a whole, blockchain could work to both speed up transactions and cut costs within the energy sector,” said Simon Rhodes, Marketing Manager, Robin Hood Energy.
A number of leading energy companies including BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Statoil entered into a consortium in 2017 with the aim of developing a blockchain-based digital platform for the trading of energy commodities, expected to launch later this year.
Further, innovation consultancy Bax & Company has helped to develop the first large-scale peer-to-peer energy trading market in the Netherlands. This combines smart grids and blockchain, allowing consumers to generate and trade energy on a local level.
The potential use of blockchain is also being explored within the healthcare industry, with a view to granting patients greater control over their personal health data. Particular focus has been placed on the levels of privacy and security that blockchain provides.
Nokia has committed itself to this end, whilst MintHealth has successfully created such a platform, providing patients with a consistent identity throughout the health ecosystem.
In the Middle East, consulting firm Cerner is working with public and private organisations to modernise health provision. “We want world class healthcare, but what does it take to build up credibility? For me, it is transparency,” said Michael Schelper, General Manager of UAE & Kuwait for Cerner Middle East & Africa. “New technology such as blockchain will play a key role in ensuring that human beings own their own data and know where it is being shared.”
Blockchain is even being used within the mining industry. For example, Yamana Gold has entered into a partnership with Emergent Technology Holdings with the goal of using digital distributed ledgers to simplify and automate the traceability of conflict-free gold.
The supply chain platform that the two have developed, known as Responsible Gold, executes this by tracking the movement of gold from the miner, to the refinery, to the consumer.
“We see significant efficiencies, value and potential for greater assurance by tracking title and provenance of gold on a blockchain data network throughout the gold value-chain,” said Peter Marrone, Yamana’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.
Maersk and IBM, two established names within the supply chain industry, have created a new company that is looking to develop a global trade digitisation platform, powered by blockchain, designed for free use for the world’s entire shipping ecosystem.
With blockchain set to be used in this way, alongside other emerging technologies such as AI, IoT and analytics, companies will be able to readily track the movement of goods across borders.
“The potential from offering a neutral, open digital platform for safe and easy ways of exchanging information is huge, and all players across the supply chain stand to benefit,” said Vincent Clerc, Chief Commercial Officer at Maersk.
Aside from its works with Maersk in the shipping industry, IBM has also been working alongside some of the world’s largest food companies using blockchain in an attempt to improve food safety.
The company teamed up with the likes of Dole, Tyson, Kroger, Driscoll’s and Nestlé last year to see if blockchain could be used in preventing the spread of food-borne illnesses caused by food contamination.
Further, IBM has also launched a new food safety alliance in China alongside Wal-Mart and JD.com, with the technology set to be used in a similar way.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is one university that is attempting to implement blockchain more readily, having already started using the technology to issue digital diplomas to its graduates.
111 MIT graduates were issued their diplomas via an app on their smartphones at the university, with the pilot programme launched off the back of a partnership between software development company Learning Machine.
“From the beginning, one of our primary motivations has been to empower students to be the curators of their own credentials,” says Registrar and Senior Associate Dean Mary Callahan. “This pilot makes it possible for them to have ownership of their records and be able to share them in a secure way, with whomever they choose.”
Voting has been touted as one of the leading areas that blockchain technology is set to disrupt, with the technology offering an accurate, secure and efficient way of compiling electoral votes.
Overstock.com is one company that sees this potential, with its wholly owned Medici Venture unit having led a funding round for a startup named Voatz that is looking to create a mobile voting platform that provides sound record keeping and identification verification.
“Democracy will benefit greatly from critical improvements blockchain technology can bring to voting systems,” said Medici Ventures President Jonathan Johnson. “For example, providing secure, immutable record keeping will bring greater confidence in accurate results, and ease of use will lower the barrier to entry for citizens to participate in elections.”
Many innovators within the automotive industry are looking to utilise blockchain as a potential solution to the threat of security breaches in autonomous vehicles.
The Toyota Research Institute last year announced that it would be exploring the uses of blockchain in creating transparency and trust in identity management, payments, vehicle history and other areas of the market.
“Thinking about Uber as an example - to achieve its future ambitions in autonomous vehicles, it needs to be completely secure and unhackable,” said blockchain expert Phillip Nunn. “This is where a decentralised system like blockchain comes in, by providing the efficiency and security the transport sector needs to be future-proofed.”
Upgrading RFID and Automated Track and Trace Solutions
During the COVID-19 pandemic, global supply chains faced the challenge of rapidly adjusting their business priorities to new customer preferences. Local supplier backlogs, winter storms, and the Suez Canal backup in March underscored the need for efficiency and visibility across the supply chain.
According to Christof Backhaus, Digital Lead Product Supply and Smart Label Project Lead at Bayer, companies must now place critical importance on tracking and tracing their products. “All large enterprises in the world dealing with finished goods,” he said, “seek functional and technical solutions to real-time channel inventory.”
Indeed, RFID’s real-time tracking data allows executives to make quick, well-informed decisions in moments of supply chain crisis - and rather than unfolding across days or weeks, it only takes a matter of minutes.
Why does RFID remain relevant despite digital disruption?
Essentially, RFID uses radio frequency waves to transfer data wirelessly between a scanner and a tag. In contrast to barcode technology, which requires a stationary scanner, RFID tags can be pinged from anywhere in the world, allowing companies to track real-time movement through the supply chain. RFID tags can also scan unique SKU numbers and distinguish between varying product sizes, colours, and styles: a critical feature for increasingly personalised end-user products.
Though the first patent for RFID tags appeared in 1973, higher accuracy rates, lower costs, and advances in sensor and data technology have made it newly accessible to a wide range of companies. Today, the technology is used in logistics networks, manufacturing and delivery networks in the pharmaceutical industry, and any business where efficiently tracking and monitoring product location is critical: raw materials, consumer products, cars, electronics, retail, and agriculture.
What are the key benefits?
Overall, automated track and trace solutions keep labour costs low, optimise operating costs, mitigate security risks, use capital effectively, and assist companies in adhering to regulatory requirements.
Below are three in-depth dives into how RFID benefits major industries:
- Pharmaceuticals: RFID tags help manufacturers safeguard sensitive products such as vaccines, tracking where they are and when they will arrive in real-time. Sensors closely monitor temperatures to ensure regulatory compliance. If anyone tampers with a shipment, the sensors alert the company.
- Logistics: RFID identifies process gaps and frequent anomalies by monitoring a product’s lifecycle from shipment to delivery. This data helps decision-makers predict the most efficient routes and therefore optimise their distribution schedules.
- Retail: Sensors help guard shipments against theft and provide critical intelligence when shipments go missing. Before adopting RFID technology in 2203, UK retailer Marks and Spencer relied on barcodes to scan inventory. When they made the switch, their productivity increased from a maximum of 400-600 items scanned per hour to up to 15,000 items scanned per hour. Building on their initial success, the retailer expanded the use of the technology and is still using it today.
Regardless of the industry, RFID promotes accuracy, immediacy, and efficiency. Companies reduce human error by automatically scanning products, keep track of inventory even in geographic locations with poor connectivity, and help streamline warehouse operations by identifying exact product locations.
Which recent innovations have changed the game?
With recent developments in cloud technology and IoT, a multitude of cloud-based alternatives have emerged to challenge traditional RFID technology. One of these cutting-edge solutions is Sony’s Smart Label - an intelligent shipping label that runs on AT&T’s global cellular network.
As with any good innovation, Sony’s proprietary technology started with a customer need ready to be solved: the Bayer Crop Science Division lacked an international IoT solution that could track seed products from start to finish throughout its distribution channel. Millions of dollars of revenue stood at stake, so Bayer turned to Sony to develop a smart label that would set the organisation up to manage its supply chain with end-to-end visibility.
Sony’s printable and disposable adhesive label allows companies to track the condition and location of their products worldwide and act upon the vast amounts of data it collects. The process is simple: the label activates when attached to the package, connects to AT&T’s secure LTE-M network, and sends data to the Smart Label Cloud in real time.
In sharp contrast to other smart label solutions that place trust in a patchwork combination of Wi-Fi, radio-frequency identification, and other limited coverage connections, the Sony Smart Label connects solely through a secure and universally-available cellular network. “Working with Sony,” says Robert Boyanovsky, the vice president of Mobility, IoT and 5G at AT&T, “we provide full visibility of every item shipped.”
Most importantly for companies on the edge, the Smart Label integrates with existing enterprise systems to achieve full visibility, thus adding value without disrupting supply chain process flow.
Why is this important now?
Companies that previously delayed introducing RFID and other automated track-and-trace technologies can capitalise on recent developments that lower costs, improve accuracy, and supercharge traceability.
Clearly the technology has value in today’s uncertain global marketplace, and can help decrease the costs of tracking goods. To quote Christof Backhaus, the Project Lead at Bayer, “the Smart Label indicates how much product is in the market, from the packaging line to the end customer.” Companies no longer have to spend a small fortune to take advantage of recent IoT developments. “Due to the technical composition [of the label],” Backhaus explains, “we don’t require additional infrastructure, manual scanning, or other expensive tools.”
Over the decades since RFID was first introduced, support for introducing it to company supply chains has also improved. AT&T’s IoT Professional Services Organisation, for example, supports companies through the end-to-end design and integration process--from installation to deployment and project management.
Companies that invest in traceable and visible supply chain solutions stand the best chance of survival, adjusting in real-time to natural disasters, shipping backups, and slowed-down supplier turnarounds as a result of the global pandemic. “Smart Label promises to help businesses like Bayer realise the full potential of the IoT,” says AT&T’s Boyanovsky. “[We can] deliver improvements in revenue and cost savings and make supply chains more efficient.”
Certainly, company executives will be hard-pressed to ignore recent innovations. In an age of uncertainty, RFID and its challengers herald a welcome sense of supply chain security. The next step? “Our sales team,” Boyanovsky adds, “is prepared to engage with prospective customers now.”