Unblocking the blockchain
GS1 is the global and neutral standards organisation responsible for developing the first GS1 barcode back in 1973. Prime Mover Spoke with Robert Beideman, Senior Vice President – Solutions and Innovation about Blockchain solutions.
There is a need to establish basic international data standards to ensure responsible connectivity between suppliers, transporters and customers so that the true benefits of blockchain can be realised by industry.
Blockchain, as a concept, might be described as this: technology that enables the sharing of data across multiple computing devices that makes these records visible to many parties but remains only editable by designated administrators and with the agreement of all involved.
Subject to strict governance rules, such ‘ledger’ systems provide a robust and trustworthy method of monitoring the transfer of physical and digital products and have the potential to deliver significant benefits to global commerce today.
Robert Beideman was in Australia recently and spoke at a symposium organised by Data61 – a division of CSIRO. Prime Mover spoke to Rob about the role that GS1 standards play in the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain solutions and the inferences for road transport.
PM: What are the biggest challenges you are seeing across industry today?
RB: We hear the same simple question asked between trading partners around the world: ‘Can you just give us the data about that product?’ The answer is very often ‘no’, not without an enormous amount of work within an organisation where different divisions or departments are responsible for data about packaging, ingredients, place or origin, and so on. It’s a challenge not just for manufacturers – it’s a challenge for all of us.
PM: How will IoT impact business in the future?
RB: A recent study estimated that 30 to 40 per cent of interactions over the next three to four years would be voice-activated and those devices like Google Home will be commonplace in business as well as in homes around the world. Devices are going to start talking to each other and share massive amounts of data, more frequently, and increasingly, without human interaction. GS1 is working to find those elements of this new ecosystem that could benefit from global standards, but we expect that there will be fundamental challenges. The overarching challenge, however, focuses on this one thing: bridging the physical world with the digital world. If you’re selling in a traditional retail shop, you’re worried about representing your stock online in a way that’s compelling and interesting. If you’re transporting products, you need accurate digital data not only about the size and weight but where the products are going, even where they’ve been. By bridging these two worlds, everyone will start saving money. But for now, it’s where everyone is spending a lot of money. GS1 provides the space for industry to work collaboratively on these “bridges” by leveraging a ‘common language’ and enabling interoperability. This ‘common language’ for the description of the movement of goods is grounded in globally unique, persistent identification. The unique and unambiguous identification of products, cases, pallets, shipments and consignments is essential to interoperability. For example, in the Australian freight and logistics sector, GS1 has been working with the Australian Logistics Council, transport companies and cargo owners to establish this foundation through whole-of-industry standards for freight identification.
PM: What can industry do now?
RB: We can boil it down to some pretty basic things that we need to speed up. Transparency between trading partners in the blockchain, the speed of data and day-to-day operations, and trust between trading partners. All of these things need to speed up. Back in 2006, we created an entire language to describe the movement of goods. Every time a package was shipped, every time a pallet was aggregated, every time a product was transformed or unpacked or received, a language existed to enable description of the “who, what, when and why” of supply chain movements. This foundational language of data exchange has evolved over the years to be highly relevant for use in enterprise blockchain implementations, as it is a significant contributor to capturing and storing data in an interoperable manner. Why is interoperability important? Because it lowers the barriers to the exchange of usable data between trading partners.
PM: Do you have any examples of blockchain in action, using GS1 standards?
RB: GS1 has been involved, at varying levels of detail, in many enterprise blockchain pilots around the world. Most of these pilots have resulted in one common learning, no matter where in the world the pilots happened. That common learning is that many foundational business processes related to the pilots need to be analysed and improved. Companies are revisiting the business processes that are driving the information/data that might eventually be referenced in entries on blockchain ledgers. After all, such ledgers will contain references to data that are relevant to contracts between businesses. These pilots have also identified that even though the concept of putting actual data about the movement of goods onto ledgers that are shared between trading partners and competitors is an idea that works in the world of cryptocurrencies, it doesn’t work across supply chain ecosystems. Instead, work has begun to investigate the practicality and complexity of leveraging hash values of off-chain data events on the ledgers to solve real-world supply chain challenges. As for specific implementations that are public, we’re not yet in a place where we can share information about specific company or industry implementations, but we hope that this will change in the near future.
PM: Do you think blockchain will be widely adopted by industry?
RB: I see a progressive, ‘step-by-step’ adoption of enterprise blockchain solutions to solve supply chain business challenges around the world. I expect that successful supply chain implementations by industry will layer blockchain ledger technology on top of existing investments in information/data stores they may have already built. Implementations that require hard cutovers between technology solutions will face great pressure and will be challenging. Data about supply chain events already exists and is maintained in a variety of business data systems. My current thinking is that successful implementations of ledger technology won’t store vast amounts of this supply chain data openly on ledgers. Rather, I expect that industry will end up only putting hashes/references to information onto blockchain ledger, choosing to maintain all their ‘real data’ elsewhere. In this case, we might not enable everything that the blockchain media hype has promised. If we do things right, I expect that the first successful implementations of blockchain ledgers to solve real-world supply chain business challenges will be in the area of trade finance. In the end, we want to enable companies that are helping to work through how blockchain ledger technology might impact their supply chain efficiencies. We want to help them by demystifying how foundational supply chain standards can work alongside enterprise blockchain ledgers to being real-world business value.