Enterprise Blockchain: Key Use Cases

Enterprise Blockchain Use Cases: Licensed from Adobe Stock

Overview

This article details 3 key sectors that are gaining traction plus their important associated use cases. The content draws heavily on our experience advising relevant blockchain companies or collaborating with hands-on subject matter experts. The sectors and use cases are:

Supply Chain Management

· Product traceability (Track & Trace)

· Product provenance & authenticity

Healthcare

· Fighting Counterfeit Drugs

· Electronic Health Records (EHR) Interoperability

Financial Services

· Cross Border Payments

· Supply Chain Financing

For each sector, we examine the industry, its key challenges, and then how blockchain and distributed ledger technologies (DLT) can provide innovative and powerful solutions. First though, we discuss centralized processes in the enterprise ecosystem as a counterpoint to the new decentralized systems.

Centralization in the Enterprise

Most enterprise-grade software infrastructures are centralized systems that provide services within a single company, primarily to its employees. These systems may also provide restricted access between a company and its direct partners or vendors. For example, most large companies have an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system which integrates all their major business functions such as procurement, sales, HR, accounting, governance, etc. to enable more efficient operations. Though internally integrated, ERP systems are very challenging and expensive to integrate with other systems.

Centralized Architecture: Licensed from Adobe Stock

There are many other centralized enterprise software platforms like customer relationship management (CRM), ecommerce systems, content management systems (CMS), business intelligence (BI), marketing automation software, etc. that help companies automate and streamline many important business functions. In healthcare, providers also make use of centralized electronic health records (EHR) systems to track patient information. All these various systems are typically hosted under centralized public, hybrid or private cloud architectures. Integration of different enterprise software systems within a company or across companies can be complex and costly, so many systems become silos of data and functionality.

Data sharing across an ecosystem, be it in healthcare, supply chain, or finance is very important for improved productivity, so each sector has developed centralized solutions to span their ecosystems. When spanning an ecosystem, data sharing invariably links competitive groups. This reality plus the need to maintain trust, protect against hacking, and improve interoperability has led to two main types of solutions. Government-mediated centralized solutions are more common in regulated industries such as banking, financial services, and healthcare. Single company mediated centralized solutions are more common in more unregulated industries like supply chain and logistics.

Here’s a quick overview of some examples of centralized ecosystem-level infrastructures that are currently in place:

Supply Chain/Logistics: The two largest names in retail in the US are Walmart for brick and mortar ($500B in revenue) and Amazon for online ($178B in revenue, 40%+ of online orders). Both giants have the most efficient and technologically sophisticated supply chains that are actively studied by the entire industry. To provide process transparency and control and drive down costs and shipment time, both leaders have centralized and own the majority of their logistics and warehouse infrastructure. For example, Amazon has invested billions of dollars to build hundreds of fulfillment and sorting centers (warehouses), has deployed tens of thousands of robots, and has built out a fleet of planes and delivery trucks. Both Amazon and Walmart have developed their own centralized custom supply chain software and mobile apps and employ hundreds of thousands of employees to operate their supply chain and logistics infrastructure.

Healthcare: In many countries, patient health records are being or have been converted to electronic form and stored in electronic health record (EHR) systems. Despite interoperability standards to promote more data sharing, few if any of these systems can successfully communicate with each other. As a result, government-backed health information exchanges (HIEs) have been funded and set up to create a centralized repository of patient records at the community, state, regional, and/or country level. Some HIEs are federated, meaning that they maintain the data in a decentralized fashion, others hybrid, however, today most are centralized. Building a country-spanning, centralized HIE infrastructure is a slow process and for the US a goal of 2024has been set by the government for the development of a basic interoperable health IT infrastructure. Global systems are also migrating to decentralized models, and hybrid models (centralized and decentralized combined models) are expected to grow the fastest through 2024.

Financial Services/Banking: The banking sector in each country is generally overseen by a central bank which is often controlled by the State government. The central bank sets monetary policy, regulates the banking system, acts as a central clearing house for transactions, and holds national and international currency reserves. In the financial services sector securities transactions are typically mediated by centralized clearing houses. Clearing houses act as an intermediary to securities transactions to clear and settle the transaction, regulate delivery of the instruments bought or sold, report trading information, and reduce counterparty risk (options/derivatives). In the US most securities transactions go through a process of settlement and reconciliation mediated by the clearing houses which generally takes 2 days (T+2).

Some of the main challenges with these large centralized systems include:

· Need for trusted intermediaries

· High costs

· Multiple versions of the ‘truth’

· Need for record matching or reconciliation

· Single point of failure

These points will be explained in more detail in the specific use cases below.

Blockchain in the Enterprise

Enterprise blockchains are typically permissioned systems in which only known partners are part of the network. This is different from public blockchains (like Bitcoin or Ethereum) in which nodes are anonymous and all information is publicly available. This approach is generally required by corporations because they do not want to share their confidential information with unknown third parties.

Enterprise Blockchain: Licensed from Adobe Stock

Permissioned blockchain systems enable trusted peer to peer transactions and distribute transaction data across a network so that all authorized players see the same information. While centralized systems are optimized for single players, decentralized blockchain systems are optimized for working across an ecosystem. Decentralized systems, by their very nature, require a community of many players in order to be useful and maximize their capabilities. Key benefits include:

· No need for trusted intermediaries

· More cost effective

· No need for costly record matching or reconciliation

· Reduction in hacking risk

These benefits result in an important paradigm shift when industry groups decide to adopt blockchain technology. The key industry players often band together in a consortium, not just to develop a standard, but actually to work together and share information. What is fascinating is that competitors in the consortium agree to open their centralized software infrastructures to one another in an unprecedented manner. Today there are over 100 blockchain consortia, including:

· Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA): 500 members including Cisco, Accenture, Bancor, Consensys, Intel, HP Enterprise, J.P. Morgan, NTT Data, Microsoft, Pfizer, Samsung

· We.Trade (Trade Finance): 9 key banks including HSBC, Deutsche Bank, UniCredit, Rabobank, KBC, Natixis, Nordea, Santander and Société Générale

· R3 Fintech Consortium: 200 members including Barclays, Bank of America, Citibank, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Credit Suisse, and UBS

· Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTA): 300+ members including UPS, FedEx, JD.com/JD Logistics, SAP, Google, Daimler, Salesforce, GE Transportation, P&G, HP, Hitachi, Microsoft

· Hyperledger: 200+ members including IBM, SAP, J.P. Morgan, TradeShift, NEC, Cisco, Accenture, American Express, Baidu, Deutsche Bank, Daimler, Aetna, Lenovo, Oracle

The enterprise ecosystem has deployed thousands of pilots over the last few years. Many real-world live deployments are projected for 2019. The following sections review key applications and use cases of enterprise blockchain technology.

Key Use Cases

Supply Chain Management (SCM)

Supply Chain Management: Licensed from Adobe Stock

The key actors in supply chains include materials providers, suppliers, logistics providers, manufacturers, warehouse managers, distributors, and end customers. Each of these actors usually stores its own information in an ERP system. These ERP systems are rarely linked with the other actors due to privacy and security concerns. Each actor usually only has information about the group just before and just after their step in the chain. As a result, data across the supply chain is fragmented and siloed so each stakeholder has little visibility to the overall state of the chain.

Not only is data siloed within the chain, but also data quality, accuracy and integrity are not optimized. Many ERP systems copy information from spreadsheets or rely on data entry from paper-based systems which is error-prone and unsupervised. Each hand-off in the supply chain rarely institutes checks on products or information. Ports, for example, are a well-known weak point. The result is that data within centralized supply chain systems is often unreliable and can be easily compromised or hacked by bad actors. The total value of counterfeit products within supply chains is projected to exceed $4.2 trillion by 2022.

As noted earlier, the largest US supply chain players (i.e. Amazon and Walmart) have spent many billions of dollars to internalize the entire logistics chain and apply custom technology solutions so that they can cope with the challenges above. This approach, however, is untenable for most players as the capital and operational costs are too high. Supply chain players can embrace enterprise blockchains as they provide a much lower cost solution to the same challenges.

Enterprise blockchains provide:

· A secure shared ledger that can provide visibility across the whole supply chain

· Smart contracts to enforce agreements and validate data for each transaction

· Accurate, immutable information that makes it possible to quickly find bad actors

The business case for blockchain is clear: higher revenues, lower costs, more efficient processes, reduced fraud, plus elimination of bad actors.

Key Blockchain Use Cases for Supply Chain

As noted above, permissioned blockchain systems can provide visibility and better data across supply chains. Common applications include:

· Product traceability

· Product provenance & authenticity

· Process transparency

Let’s look at each in turn.

Product Traceability

The ability to quickly find the origin of a product is important in different contexts. For example, consider food traceability. Mass food disease outbreaks from foods infected with Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, or parasites generally create widespread panic. Food scares can lead to huge losses for food producers and distributors when specific products (i.e. spinach, lettuce, beef, etc.) are pulled from shelves en masse and destroyed both in store and back at the farm. As many food-borne illnesses are eventually traced back to a single farm or even a single batch of product, finding the source of contamination quickly can save millions of dollars.

With current supply chain systems, food traceability often takes a week or more since data is fragmented and siloed and each part of the supply chain needs to be contacted directly. A week may seem like a short time, but as the media reports on illnesses and deaths mount, retailers and farmers are forced to destroy products quickly to regain consumer confidence. US food safety outbreaks lead to 48 million illnesses, 300,000 hospitalizations and 5000 deaths annually. They also cost the US economy more than $93 billion each year. Globally the numbers are much larger, 600 million illnesses and 420,000 deaths annually from food contamination. Smaller retailers and farmers are especially hard hit since they have to absorb the losses and some are usually forced into bankruptcy.

As noted above, blockchain-based supply chain systems can provide an accurate and immutable record of all transactions across the chain. These systems assign a unique ID and unhackable decentralized tagging system that tracks food at the batch or lot number. Often the unique ID is based on a global standard to ensure that all stakeholders are using the same approach for identifying their products. Since all nodes have access to this record, traceability becomes routine.

Pilots with Walmart and other large food retailers have already demonstrated that blockchain-based systems can determine the origin of a package of food in seconds or minutes (IBM Food Trust), as opposed to 6–7 days under current systems. Since these blockchain-based systems can rapidly find the source of food safety outbreaks they provide the opportunity to greatly reduce the scale of food borne illnesses and related supply chain economic losses.

Product Provenance & Authenticity

As noted above, the global counterfeit goods market is a multi-trillion dollar problem, and growing larger. A significant fraction of this number is fake luxury goods — the well-known brands behind handbags, high end clothes, and accessories. Many people who purchase counterfeit branded products may not be aware that the products are fake, because they may purchase them through reputable web sites, outlet stores, or replicas of the retailer’s or manufacturer’s web site.

In today’s supply chain systems there is no simple way to track the provenance and authenticity of a product. More sophisticated centralized systems, such as EPCglobal, have used barcodes, unique electronic product codes (EPC), and RFID technology to track items through the supply chain. These systems, however, rely on centralized certificate authorities and centralized databases and so are fundamentally insecure since they have single points of failure that make them susceptible to hacking risk.

RFID Monitoring: Licensed from Adobe Stock

Decentralized and ultra-secure blockchain systems allow product tracking to its origin (traceability) and through every step of the supply chain (authenticity). Building on this foundation, a number of blockchain projects plan to use Decentralized Apps (DApps) that use information in the supply chain to authenticate that a product, such as a luxury good, is in fact authentic. The DApp enables a user to scan a QR code on the product which provides a full trace and validation of the product’s authenticity.

Such an approach tracks the product or a product’s components through every step in the chain, for example via an embedded RFID or NFC chip. At each step in the chain, the RFID chip is scanned, a smart contract is executed, and then multiple trusted nodes verify the information is correct before it is written to the blockchain ledger. Each entry in the blockchain ledger is cryptographically signed and encrypted which deters fraud and reduces the chance of hacking. Since the entire supply chain process becomes transparent, it becomes possible to quickly and inexpensively validate product authenticity. Any product that doesn’t enable DApp-based authenticity then becomes suspect which disincentivizes fraud.

Provenance takes authenticity one step further by also providing information about the entire history of a product through the supply chain. So, for example, the location history, the custody history, and the environmental conditions during the journey can be tracked and stored immutably on the blockchain. This type of information — GPS coordinates, custody IDs, temperature data, accelerometer information (for damage assessment) — is typically provided by Internet of Things (IoT) devices. These devices send out data streams that in combination with decentralized consensus are then written to the blockchain. Since blockchain technology reduces verification costs it will likely gain widespread adoption and so make checking product authenticity and provenance commonplace.

A significant growth area is tracking of temperature for products in a temperature controlled supply chain or ‘cold chain’. Perishable products like food or medicine often need to be refrigerated and freshness or viability can be impacted by temperature swings. A significant fraction of food and medicine is spoiled during shipment due to intentional or accidental conditions that warm the product above recommended or agreed ‘cold chain’ temperatures. IoT devices can continuously measure temperature and store the log, via a hash on the blockchain. This log then provides an immutable and independent temperature record that can be used for enforcing accountability and understanding conditions that led to spoilage or damage.

Other use cases can include verification of specialty crop certifications (i.e. fair trade, organic), origin and authenticity of high value goods (i.e. diamonds, precious metals, luxury goods, etc.), conflict-free designation (i.e. NOT blood diamonds or using child labor), and provenance/authenticity of medical drugs (i.e. pharmaceuticals — covered below in the healthcare section).

Healthcare

Inefficient Healthcare: Licensed from Adobe Stock

The high levels of inefficiency and fraud in healthcare systems arise from lack of data and process transparency, pervasive vulnerability to hacking, and data siloing in organizations. As noted previously, permissioned enterprise blockchain systems are ideal for spanning ecosystems to increase data and process transparency, reduce hacking, and improve data sharing between organizations. As a result, there is a strong conceptual fit between enterprise blockchain and the type of solutions needed for the healthcare ecosystem.

Now let’s take a look at some of the most important and pressing use cases.

Fighting Counterfeit Drugs

The global pharmaceuticals industry is big business, valued annually at $1.1 trillion. Pharmaceutical companies spend tens of billions of dollars and go through an arduous process to produce and commercialize prescription drugs. With the global counterfeit drug market valued at $200 billion annually, there is a clear motivation in the pharma sector to fight counterfeiting. What is also at stake are human lives, with adverse reactions and effects to these fake drugs, which can lead to death. In certain parts of the world, up to 50% of the drugs are counterfeit.

Counterfeit Drugs: Licensed from Adobe Stock

In emerging markets, 10%-30% of prescription drugs are counterfeit, with issues ranging from tampered drugs to drugs with incorrect ingredients or incorrect proportions of ingredients. Most of the counterfeit drugs are being produced in China and India but sold worldwide. A very relevant example of this type of fraud, is the recent (July 2018) China vaccine scandal where a government vaccination program was found to have administered hundreds of thousands of faulty vaccines to young children.

At the root of global pharmaceutical fraud is a supply chain transparency and product authenticity problem. Without transparency in the supply chain it is very difficult to pinpoint the origin of the fraud, identify the bad actors who perpetrated the crime, or verify product authenticity. What is needed is for the entire process, from production to quality assurance to distribution, to be secured in an unhackable database with each entry cryptographically signed and encrypted. This capability and its resulting transparency is exactly what blockchain technology provides.

Like in the case of food (above), the blockchain ledger can provide transparency end-to-end for drug production and distribution, including visibility into every stage of the supply chain. The implications of this level of detail are enormous. Not only does blockchain technology improve the traceability of prescription drugs in the supply chain, it can also ensure that international standards are upheld, such as GDP (Good Distribution Practices), ensuring the integrity and quality of the medication for the end user. Additionally, it will also be much more difficult for bad actors to tamper with the process or for pharma companies themselves to market fraudulent products.

It is for this reason that the blockchain community in China has called for placing all vaccine data on a transparent blockchain system to return consumer trust. With such a system in place, healthcare professionals or pharmacists could scan a QR code on the product to ascertain authenticity and/or the dosage of the active ingredients.

Electronic Health Records Interoperability (EHR)

Electronic Health Record (EHR) systems were created to produce better patient health outcomes by providing complete patient medical information at the point of care. In a previous article, Blockchain in Healthcare: A Data-Centric Perspective, we illustrated how EHR systems are fundamentally broken since healthcare data continues to be siloed and interoperability remains a huge challenge.

One of the main reasons that health systems are inefficient is that doctors and nurses often lack patient historical health information when diagnosing a patient. Each patient’s health records are typically splintered across many EHR systems, or even antiquated paper records, and scattered across different providers (i.e. doctors, specialists, hospitals, labs, clinics, etc.). Since these systems are rarely interoperable, the patient’s records are inaccessible. Generally, the lack of medical context and the lack of continuity in a patient’s health record, exacerbated by delays in obtaining relevant information from other providers, means that doctors cannot efficiently and fully treat a patient other than for symptoms being presented. This can be a life threatening set of circumstances in emergency situations.

As noted above, Health Information Exchanges (HIEs), were conceived as the solution to these issues, with the expectation that sharing relevant patient information would provide the missing context in a patient’s health history, however the reality has been quite different. In the US, HIEs do not operate across state lines, and few systems work across country borders. In our increasingly mobile behavior, the urban population is less likely to be in one place for their life span. As most HIEs contain only a small portion of a patient’s medical record, it is time-consuming and expensive to access all the information and migrate it to a unified system. Current centralized models are expected to migrate to decentralized models by 2024.

Enterprise blockchain technology can create the missing interoperability links unifying healthcare systems so that data can be shared quickly and seamlessly across providers. The concept is that all providers would join a network of permissioned blockchains that would enable them to retain control of their data, while being able to share requested patient information to another authorized provider. This is in essence a decentralized HIE that would use smart contracts, the immutable ledger, and blockchain security to create a higher level of trust between participants leading to faster adoption.

Banking/Financial Services

Money: Licensed from Adobe Stock

Key challenges in these sectors include:

· Slow payment processing

· High fees

· Lack of transparency

· Lack of liquidity

Let’s look at three use cases where these issues are exemplified and how enterprise blockchains can provide solutions.

Cross Border Payments

Trillions of dollars of cross-border payments take place every day. Consider a pharmaceuticals company in Colombia that wants to pay a marketing firm in Chile via a wire transfer. The system works through a system of correspondent banking relationships plus centralized messaging systems known as SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication), Fedwire, and/or CHIPS (Clearing House Interbank Payments System).

Since the banks for the pharmaceutical company and the marketing company may not have a direct relationship, there are many intermediaries needed to process the transaction, which becomes complex and fees add up quickly. In the best of cases this type of complex transaction may process in 3–5 business days, but if you include holidays and weekends spanning multiple countries, the transaction may take 1–2 weeks to complete.

Enterprise blockchain solutions enable banks without an existing trusted relationship to send electronic transfers to each other directly without the need for intermediaries. Today more than 90% of large banks are piloting blockchain systems and cross-border payments is one of the primary use cases.

Live blockchain enabled production systems and many pilots have shown that transfer times can complete in minutes at a fraction of the cost of current systems. The goal is to make cross border transfers as fast as email between most major countries. One of the outstanding challenges which has not yet been overcome is the acceptance and adoption of digital currencies universally to ensure that settlement happens quickly and transparently.

Supply Chain Financing

During the course of normal operations, small and midsize businesses (SMB) within supply chains may suffer from significant cashflow shortfalls. A common cause is that a business receives a large order for goods but has insufficient funds to purchase components or services from other businesses to fulfill the order. Another case is that the SMB fulfills the order but then due to long invoice payment terms cannot meet its own operational financial obligations and cannot fulfill other orders. These scenarios are significant real-world problem for many enterprises as it is projected that there are trillions of dollars of goods recorded on corporate balance sheets that will never be delivered.

Supply Chain Financing: Licensed from Adobe Stock

In many instances, SMB suppliers or providers in enterprise supply chains may turn to banks or lenders for purchase order financing or invoice financing to cover their cash shortfall. In purchase order (PO) financing a business receives the majority of the PO value upfront, minus fees, so that it can fulfill the order. In invoice financing a business receives a short-term line of credit equal to 70–90% of the face value of the invoice as immediate cash. In nearly 50% of instances, however, banks reject these financing requests since they often do not have a trusted relationship with the SMB or its trading partners and cannot qualify the risk.

In a blockchain-based supply chain the ledger can provide secure and immutable evidence regarding the validity of the PO or invoice as well as information about the trading partners, letters of credit, bills of lading, and other trade instruments. It can also validate that the SMB has not offered the PO or invoice to other parties for financing. The blockchain-based system can use smart contracts that trigger payments to the lender based on specific agreed milestones. Such a system enables banks and other lenders to quantify and qualify their risk, while helping enterprises to fulfill critical supply chain transactions, overcoming the major problems in today’s centralized systems.

Conclusion

We are confident that 2019 will see a significant increase in enterprise blockchain adoption on a global basis. We also project that blockchain technology will be combined with AI and IoT systems to create ultra-secure and smart infrastructures. We believe that current scalability in permissioned systems is sufficient for initial deployments and will foster increased investment in enterprise blockchain.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Jorden Woods, my colleague at DoubleNova Group, for his contributions.

Copyright DoubleNova Group 2018

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Radhika Iyengar-Emens

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TEDx speaker, Silicon Valley Women of Inflluence, Blockchain investor, Digital Health & Blockchain expert, Serial entrepreneur, DoubleNova Group Co-founder

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