Open access peer-reviewed chapter

Blockchain Technology in Supply Chain Management

Written By

Thomas E. Fernandez

Submitted: 07 March 2022 Reviewed: 08 June 2022 Published: 08 July 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.105761

From the Edited Volume

Logistics Engineering

Edited by Samson Jerold Samuel Chelladurai, Suresh Mayilswamy, S. Gnanasekaran and Ramakrishnan Thirumalaisamy

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Abstract

Supply chain management has existed for thousands of years. Technology started evolving with the industrial revolution and yet, paper-based bills of lading are still widely used in the international trade today. This chapter explores what problems exist in today’s supply chains, and whether blockchain technology can help solve them. The problems are categorized into three categories: The origin of the raw material or the product is not obvious; trust issues can exist between seller and buyer; and the supply chain execution is inefficient. A brief explanation of blockchain technology follows as the second part, with a focus on the technology that is useful for this purpose of this article. The two parts come together in the third part, showing how blockchain technology can solve the problems. Finally, a critical view is taken to show the limitations of blockchain technology as a problem solver.

Keywords

  • blockchain technology
  • supply chains
  • supply chain management
  • use cases

1. Introduction

Supply chain management manages the flow of material, money, and information from the origin of the raw materials to the final consumer. Supply chains have existed for thousands of years, which includes procurement, transportation, inventory and warehouse management, customs clearance, and distribution. A supply chain involves many entities, including companies and governments, and several departments in each of these entities. However, 62% of the surveyed companies responded that they have only limited visibility of their supply chains [1].

In the latter part of the twentieth century, companies and governments started to digitize the management of the supply chain (also see [2]), first in technological silos in which each department had their own hardware and software, such as an inventory management system (IMS) or an accounting system, for example. With increasing acceptance of computers in businesses, an increasing amount of software entered the market. Examples are distribution and fleet management systems, automatic ordering systems, automatic storage and retrieval systems (AS/ARs) and transport management system (TMS) to name but a few. All these systems were finally integrated into an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. However, not all ERP systems could integrate all the different software systems, and—most importantly—often not across companies within the same supply chain.

Vertical and horizontal integration requires the exchange of fast and accurate information between the various members of the supply chain. These members include first-tier and second-tier suppliers, wholesalers and retailers, as well as service providers [3]. Even without fully integrating the supply chains, information exchange is crucial to an efficient operation. The traditional method for an exporter was to type their invoice and packing list, send it to their forwarder, and have the forwarder retype it as a shipping instruction to the shipping line who in turn retyped the data into the bill of lading (B/L); and at destination, a customs broker retyped all the data into the customs clearance system. This is not only inefficient but can cause problems, starting from typing mistakes to the opportunity for fraud.

Blockchain technology is a technology that has many use cases. It became known for cryptocurrency, as the first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, was also the first use case for blockchain technology [4]. This chapter will show how blockchain technology is much more versatile and can be used in supply chains in order to manage complex supply chains efficiently and accurately.

This chapter is structured as follows:

Section 1: Introduction.

Section 2: Problems intrinsic to traditional supply chains.

Section 3: Brief introduction to blockchain technology.

Section 4: How blockchain technology can help solve the problems.

Section 5: Possible problems with blockchains.

Section 6: Conclusion.

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2. Problems intrinsic to traditional supply chains

Supply chain management manages the flow of material, money, and information. In this chapter, we will concentrate only on the material and the information flows. Material usually flows from the origin of the raw material to the consumer (downstream) and information flows both upstream and downstream in the supply chain. A simple supply chain showing the flow of material is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

A simple supply chain. Source: The author.

With the advent of computers, supply chain visibility [5] was introduced. Supply chain visibility means that the supply chain manager can see—on his or her computer screen—where the inbound or outbound material is located at the very moment, whether stocks are getting low and need to be reordered, and where any problems exist. Airfreight shipments or seafreight containers can be tracked on the Internet, and warehouse and inventory management systems can be accessed remotely.

The following problems can be identified in current supply chains:

  • The origin of the raw material or the product is not obvious.

  • Trust issues can exist between seller and buyer.

  • The supply chain execution is inefficient.

2.1 Origin of the raw material or the product

While the consumers in the past century often chose a product based on the price and the perceived quality—using the brand name and the retailer’s brand image as references—today the consumer wants to know the origin of the goods. For example, organic food is becoming more and more popular and so is the desire of the consumers to be able to check that the goods are really organic [6, 7]. Foodstuff has been falsely declared as organic in order to achieve higher prices. Another example is that dolphins are believed to be accidentally killed when fishing for tuna (see e.g., [8]), clothes may have been produced in sweat shops or using child labor [9] or that a wedding ring could contain a “conflict diamond” or “blood diamond” [10]. A scandal in Europe in 2013 revealed that lasagna contained horse meat, which was unexpected and undesired by the consumers. Lack of traceability was blamed [11].

The current tracking systems cannot provide the visibility needed to ensure that the goods come from an approved source. While seafreight containers can be traced from the port of loading or an airfreight shipment from the airport of departure, it is unclear where the goods actually originated from. Trucks, for example within Europe, can be tracked with GPS systems, but the shipments themselves cannot.

Suppliers may even intentionally falsify the origin of goods. This happens when the origin is illicit (e.g., conflict diamonds), the manufacturer handled unethically and should not be revealed (e.g., using child labor and forced labor), or an importer wants to take advantage of reduced import duties under a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) even though the goods do not satisfy the rules of origin specified in the FTA.

2.2 Trust issues between seller and buyer

Unless trust has already been established between seller and buyer, the seller needs to ensure that they will receive payment when they deliver the goods, while the buyer needs to ensure that they will receive the goods when they arrange for payment. The solution has been for centuries that the buyer opens am Irrevocable Documentary Letter of Credit with their bank, which the seller accepts. This method requires a number of documents and is rather complex and inefficient, as well as costly. In addition, it bears some risks [12].

If the buyer requires goods or components made in a certain country as they believe the quality is better, they will just have to believe that the seller does not source these items somewhere else for a lower price.

2.3 Inefficient supply chain execution

Contracts may stipulate that certain actions will take place when certain conditions are met. For example, payment shall be affected when goods have been shipped, or when goods have been delivered. The problem here is that it requires human action, and if the conditions have been met and the human action has not been taken, there is little the beneficiary of the action (e.g., the recipient of the payment) can do. For large financial amounts, international legal action can be taken, but they are very costly and can take years.

If conditions trigger an automated action by a computer system, a risk of hacking exists. It can be forged that the conditions have been met so that action is taken.

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3. Blockchain technology

This chapter provides a brief explanation of blockchain technology. Only aspects relevant to this article are described, and they are described with relevance to supply chains in mind.

Blockchain technology is a layer on the internet. It consists of “blocks” that are chained together. A block contains sets of data, similar to records in a database. While a block contains several sets of data, this chapter simplifies the technology into assuming each block contains one set of data in order to explain the principle.

A set of data contains

  • Data (the content);

  • A timestamp showing when it was created;

  • The “hash” of the previous block;

  • Its own “hash”;

  • Some other technical data.

A new database record will be created each time a transaction happens. In supply chains, an example of a transaction is loading of the container onto a ship.

3.1 What is a hash?

A hash is the output of an algorithm. Simply put, an algorithm is a mathematical formula consisting of more than one step. It calculates on output from one or more inputs. The output of the hash algorithm is a code, an encryption of the input. If we run the same input through the same algorithm several times, the output (hash) will always be the same. That is why it is sometimes called the fingerprint of the data. If only one letter is changed, the hash completely changes (Table 1).

INPUTHASH
This is a testC7BE1ED902FB8DD4D48997C6452F5D7E509FBCDBE2808B16BCF4EDCE4C07D14E
This is a test2E99758548972A8E8822AD47FA1017FF72F06F3FF6A016851F45C398732BC50C

Table 1.

Changing “T” at the beginning to “t” [13].

Source: Rosic (2020).

On the other hand, it is practically impossible to re-engineer a hash and get the original input. If only the hash is known, the data that were supplied to the algorithm for calculation of this hash cannot be found out.

Furthermore, a hash has a fixed length. If the SHA256 algorithm is used, the length is 32 bytes citation regardless of how long the input was (Table 2):

INPUTHASH
Hi639EFCD08ABB273B1619E82E78C29A7DF02C1051B1820E99FC395DCAA3326B8
Welcome53A53FC9E2A03F9B6E66D84BA701574CD9CF5F01FB498C41731881BCDC68A7C8

Table 2.

Length of input [13].

Source: Rosic (2020).

3.2 Creating a chain

It was mentioned earlier that a data record in the blockchain contains the hash of the previous block. It is also known that the hash changes when any of the inputs change. It follows that the hash of the previous block cannot be changed without changing the hash of the current block; the current block is hence linked to the previous block. So, we have a chain of blocks, or better: a blockchain.

  • Block1 → Block2 → Block3 → Block4

If each new block contains the hash of the previous block, this means that if a hacker wants to change any data in any previous block of the blockchain, this hacker will have to change the previous hashes in all previous blocks. If they want to change data in Block2, this changes the hash of Block2 and therefore the hash of the previous block for Block3. Hence, the hash of Block3 also changes, and the hacker needs to regenerate that has, and this continues along the whole blockchain to the end.

3.3 Distributed ledger technology

Once a hacker in the earlier-mentioned scenario has access to the database, it would not be a problem to change all the hashes. This is where distributed ledger technology (DLT) comes in. A ledger is a type of database. If DLT technology is used, it means that each “node,” that is, each computer on the network, carries the database. The network type is a peer-to-peer network [14].

If this ledger were on one server, it can be hacked more easily. Even if it is in a cloud, it could be hacked as the servers in a cloud all mirror each other. A distributed ledger is much resilient, as it not administered by a central server or entity.

If a transaction takes place and should be added to the blockchain, it needs to be verified. If everybody just added transactions, fraudulent or corrupt data could enter the blockchain. Therefore, a consensus mechanism is required [15]. If a node wants to add a transaction, it asks the other nodes for confirmation. The other nodes will vote for the update, using an algorithm. If more than a threshold, for example, 50%, of the replies are confirmations, the transaction will be added to the block.

3.4 Transparency and immutability

In blockchain technology, the network used is a peer-to-peer network. This means that each node is connected to the other node directly, not via servers as in a local area network (LAN). If the majority of these computers on the network have to agree on a change, a hacker would have to hack the majority of the computers in order to change one block and the subsequent blocks. While this is not absolutely impossible, it is considered not feasible in the computing industry [16]. This means in practice that the data in the blockchain cannot be changed. This is called immutability.

Furthermore, since a copy of the whole ledger is on every computer connected to the network, it is transparent.

3.5 Smart contracts

The “data” in the block can contain any kind of data. This includes copies of documents or software code. The software code may stipulate that when a certain event occurs, an action will be taken. For example, if the shipment is on board and the documents have been submitted to the blockchain and found to be correct, payment from the buyer to the seller should be made.

The oldest example of a smart contract is the vending machine: insert coins, choose a product, the product will be disbursed without human intervention.

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4. How blockchain technology can help solve the problems

The problems identified with traditional supply chain at the beginning of this presentation were as follows:

  • The origin of the raw material or the product is not obvious.

  • Trust issues can exist between seller and buyer.

  • The supply chain execution is inefficient.

When using blockchain technology in supply chain and logistics, each record in our blockchain contains a transaction and other data. This could be the bill of lading (B/L)—an electronic B/L or a scanned copy of a paper B/L—or just the fact that the container has been loaded onto a vessel. Each time a transaction happens, a record is added to the block.

This chapter will show how blockchain technology can help solving these problems.

4.1 The origin of the raw material or the product is not obvious

This problem can be solved easily by tagging the raw material at origin. A real-life example can be found in a case study published by Provenance [17] in which they describe the supply chain from tuna fishing to cans of tuna in a supermarket and a tuna dish offered in a restaurant. The blockchain will be created once the fish is caught on still on the boat, and at every step in the supply chain—unloading from boat to truck at the port, delivery to the processing plant, processing (which requires integration with the plants ERP to know which catch is packed into which cans), delivery and distribution, and finally arrival at the retail outlet or restaurant. The can of tuna shows a QR code which the consumer can scan with an app that connects to the blockchain. The supply chain will be followed backward to the fisher, and the consumer will receive a result on their smartphone confirming that the fisher acted in an ethical way.

Diamonds can be identified with 40 metadata points and a high definition of the diamond. The diamond can then be traced along the supply chain [18, 19]. This way, the buyer can ensure that their wedding ring does not contain a conflict diamond.

In order for the blockchain to confirm to the consumer that the product came from an ethical source, this information needs to be entered into the dataset. In the case of the tuna fish, the fisher needs to be approved by an independent agency, for example, an NGO. In the case of the diamond, the mining company must be approved. The parameters can be set as desired: Does this market segment require the produce to originate at an organic farm, or do they want produce that are not genetically modified, or do they not want any growth hormones in their meat? The origin can be certified by a trusted body, and the consumer can verify that the origin satisfies their requirements.

For industrial products, the origin can also be of interest, not only for the consumers. A car manufacturer can ensure that the components are genuine, for example [20, 21].

Customs departments require the presentation of a Certificate of Origin (C/O) in order to apply special privileges, such as import duty reductions or exemptions, to importers of goods made in countries with which a Free Trade Agreement exists. These C/O’s are traditionally paper documents that have been signed and stamped by the exporter and the exporting country’s issuing authority, often the Foreign Trade Department of the Ministry of Commerce. These paper documents can be forged.

If the issuing authority confirms on the blockchain that this shipment conforms to the rule of origin, the customs department of the importing country can easily see this on the blockchain. Also, the customs department in the exporting country can add the customs entry to the blockchain so that the customs department of the importing country can verify the declared product and the value [22]. Due to transparency and immutability, the origin cannot be changed.

4.2 Trust issues can exist between seller and buyer

The buyer does not need to believe that the products or components originate in a certain country; they can easily check it on the blockchain.

Once the blockchain has been created, the buyer can request access to the blockchain. They can then track the goods. Are they delayed in production or on time? Has the container been loaded on board the vessel, and has it departed on time?

A smart contract can be included in the blockchain so that when the goods are in accordance with the order, they have been loaded into a container, which has been transported to the port, and the container has been loaded onto the ship, and payment is triggered by the bank—which will also be on the blockchain. Trust is not required.

4.3 The supply chain execution is inefficient

It has already been suggested that certain conditions, when met, can trigger payments. While automated payments are already reality without blockchain technology—the telephone bill is an example—the difference here is the number of entities involved and the number of conditions that have to be fulfilled across the entities. Blockchain technology allows a higher degree of complexity.

Combined with artificial intelligence (AI) that manages demand forecasting, sales and operations planning systems and master productions schedules (MPSs) can be updated along with the material requirement planning (MRP). While this is within the ERP system and a blockchain is not required, the purchase orders (POs) that are sent to the suppliers leave the company’s computing environment. POs can be sent by electronic data interchange (EDI) and then trigger an update of the supplier’s MPS and hence his/her MRP. The supplier’s ERP can then send their PO to their supplier (i.e., the manufacturer’s second-tier supplier), and onward, upstream in the supply chain.

This requires different systems to cooperate. There are many ERP systems in the market, requiring different interface to even connect. In addition, the ERP system of any member of the supply chain may not be fully integrated internally [23] so that gaps in data transfer can occur.

There will be no visibility for the manufacturer into the second- or even third-tier supplier. This goes beyond the mere knowledge of the origin of the components and their origin in turn; visibility and data flow are essential to prevent the Bullwhip Effect [24].

Blockchain technology will also be able to take advantage of the Internet of Things (IoT) [25]. When the manufacturer has the forecast that was generated by AI and the new MPS has been set, manufacturing can be automated. The components are in the automated warehouse and can be retrieved and moved to the assembly line; assembly can be done with robots.

As the orders from the customers will be in the system, the system can generate the invoices and packing list and also submit the documents to customs. Customs can check for the business registration with the appropriate government office, and if any export licenses are required, this can be checked accordingly.

Once the goods are loaded into the container on the truck for delivery by seafreight, the driverless truck can be programmed to a destination inside the port. Once the truck arrives there—can be verified with smart CCTV cameras or satellite tracking—an automated crane can unload the container from the truck and store it in the container yard. The container yard storage system will be on the blockchain, along with the shipping line that has the confirmed booking (and the container will be moved alongside ship for loading) as well as customs.

During the voyage, the vessel data are available on the blockchain via satellite data. At the port of discharge, the port authorities, customs, and all other public and private entities concerned with this shipment receive the data they require, as they are all connected to the blockchain for this shipment. Immutability of data means that they all have the same data, and there will be no discrepancies. Yuan and Yong proposed blockchain-based intelligent transport systems, including multimodal transport [26].

This will greatly improve efficiency and eliminate fraud [27].

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5. Possible problems with blockchains

The data are on all computers on the blockchain. A trader who imports goods will not want his customer to know his supplier or how much his actual cost were. The solution is to use a permissioned blockchain rather than a public blockchain. In a public blockchain, all data are visible to any node in the network. However, there is a solution: a permissioned blockchain requires permission to see certain data. According to Wüst and Gervais [28], a permissioned blockchain is useful if there are multiple writers, it is not guaranteed that everybody is only all the time, all writers are known, not all writers are trusted, and public verifiability is required. If some of these conditions are not given, they suggest permissionless public blockchains or even not to use any blockchain.

However, if a permissioned blockchain does make sense due to the number of contributors and the complexity of modern blockchains, there are two issues to consider: 1.) the consensus mechanism used and 2.) data security and integrity.

There are different kinds of consensus mechanisms, Proof-of-Work (POW) and Proof-of-Stake (POS) being the most well-known ones. They are fundamentally different but come to the same question: Who can vote whether a block is added? And also, how many votes are needed as a minimum, and what percentage is the threshold to accept the new block?

Data security and integrity have to be addressed, as we earlier said that the whole blockchain—with all data—is on every node computer. It is encrypted, and in the permissioned blockchain, only those data are accessible to a user for which they have received permission. The security is only guaranteed as the login credentials are kept secure.

In the supply chain, the wholesaler would receive permission to view the country of origin and whether the manufacturer is confirmed to not use child labor, for example. This is the information they need. Customs will need information about the exporter and the importer and any licenses, but not about the exporter’s supplier. With the new German Supply Chain Act [29], German authorities will want to know whether the supply chain conforms to the regulations with regard to ethical manufacturing. Therefore, it is crucial that only those entities on the blockchain that need certain data have access to it. Another issue is that blockchains are often outsourced to cloud computing services for various reasons. Limited trust in cloud computing can reduce the adoption of blockchain technology [30].

Different blockchains use different technologies and are often not compatible with each other. However, this problem is being solved by creating interfaces between the blockchains. This means that if a manufacturer opts for blockchain provider A and their supplier uses blockchain provider B, and both use different technologies, the data can ideally still be moved from one technology to the other without loss of data or functionality. However, this does not apply to all types of blockchains, and even if there is a “fork”—a splitting of a blockchain for example to update the technology—is applied, access to both sides of the fork may not be possible [31].

Using blockchain technology can be expensive [30]. Depending on the blockchain type, there are different charges that apply for every transaction.

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6. Conclusion

Supply chains are becoming more complex and more difficult to manage. Problems exist because manual processes are still used, such as paper-based bills of lading, different computer systems within a company do not integrate, or different computer systems used by the different members of a supply chain may not integrate with each other. Blockchain technology can help solve problems of complex supply chains. Use of blockchain will increase efficiency, increase supply chain visibility, and eventually prevent mistakes and prevent fraud.

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Written By

Thomas E. Fernandez

Submitted: 07 March 2022 Reviewed: 08 June 2022 Published: 08 July 2022