More Blockchain Synergies With IoT: Supply Chain Optimization

The more I learn about blockchain’s possible uses — this time for supply chains — the more convinced I am that it is absolutely essential to full development of the IoT’s potential.

I recently raved about blockchain’s potential to perhaps solve the IoT’s growing security and privacy challenges. Since then, I’ve discovered that it can also further streamline and optimize the supply chain, another step toward the precision that I think is such a hallmark of the IoT.

As I’ve written before, the ability to instantly share (something we could never do before) real-time data about your assembly line’s status, inventories, etc. with your supply chain can lead to unprecdented integration of the supply chain and factory, much of it on a M2M basis without any human intervention. It seems to me that the blockchain can be the perfect mechanism to bring about this synchronization.

A brief reminder that, paradoxically, it’s because blockchain entries (blocks) are shared, and distributed (vs. centralized) that it’s secure without using a trusted intermediary such as a bank, because no one participant can change an entry after it’s posted.

Complementing the IBM video I included in my last post on the subject, here’s one that I think succinctly summarizes blockchain’s benefits:

A recent LoadDelivered article detailed a number of the benefits from building your supply chain around blockchain. They paralleling the ones I mentioned in my prior post regarding its security benefits, of using blockchain to organize your supply chain (with some great links for more details):

  • “Recording the quantity and transfer of assets – like pallets, trailers, containers, etc. – as they move between supply chain nodes (Talking Logistics)
  • Tracking purchase orders, change orders, receipts, shipment notifications, or other trade-related documents
  • Assigning or verifying certifications or certain properties of physical products; for example determining if a food product is organic or fair trade (Provenance)
  • Linking physical goods to serial numbers, bar codes, digital tags like RFID, etc.
  • Sharing information about manufacturing process, assembly, delivery, and maintenance of products with suppliers and vendors.”

That kind of information, derived from real-time IoT sensor data, should be irresistible to companies compared to the relative inefficiency of today’s supply chain.

The article goes on to list a variety of benefits:

  • “Enhanced Transparency. Documenting a product’s journey across the supply chain reveals its true origin and touchpoints, which increases trust and helps eliminate the bias found in today’s opaque supply chains. Manufacturers can also reduce recalls by sharing logs with OEMs and regulators (Talking Logistics).
  • Greater Scalability. Virtually any number of participants, accessing from any number of touchpoints, is possible (Forbes).
  • Better Security. A shared, indelible ledger with codified rules could potentially eliminate the audits required by internal systems and processes (Spend Matters).
  • Increased Innovation. Opportunities abound to create new, specialized uses for the technology as a result of the decentralized architecture.”

Note that it the advantages aren’t all hard numbers, but also allowing marketing innovations, similar to the way the IoT allows companies to begin marketing their products as services because of real-time data from the products in the field. In the case of applying it to the supply chain (food products, for example), manufacturers could get a marketing advantage because they could offer objective, tamper-proof documentation of the product’s organic or non-GMO origins. Who would have thought that technology whose primary goal is increasing operating efficiency could have these other, creative benefits as well?

Applying  blockchain to the supply chain is getting serious attention, including a pilot program in the Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest.  IBM, Intel, Cisco and Accenture are among the blue-chip members of Hyperledger, a new open source Linux Foundation collaboration to further develop blockchain. Again, it’s the open source, decentralized aspect of blockchain that makes it so effective.

Logistics expert Adrian Gonzalez is perhaps the most bullish on blockchain’s potential to revolutionize supply chains:

“the peer-to-peer, decentralized architecture of blockchain has the potential to trigger a new wave of innovation in how supply chain applications are developed, deployed, and used….(becoming) the new operating system for Supply Chain Operating Networks

It’s also another reminder of the paradoxical wisdom of one of my IoT “Essential Truths,” that we must learn to ask “who else could share this information” rather than hoarding it as in the past. It is the very fact that blockchain data is shared that means it can’t be tampered with by a single actor.

What particularly intrigues me about widespread use of blockchain at the heart of companies’ operations and fueled by real-time data from IoT sensors and other devices is that it would ensure that privacy and security, which I otherwise fear would always be an afterthought, would instead be inextricably linked with achieving efficiency gains. That would make companies eager to embrace the blockchain, assuring their attention to privacy and security as part of the deal. That would be a definite win-win.

Blockchain must definitely be on your radar in 2017.

 

Lo and behold, right after I posted this, news that WalMart, the logistics savants, are testing blockchain for supply chain management!

 

IoT Intangibles: Increased Customer Loyalty

There are so many direct, quantifiable benefits of the IoT, such as increased quality (that 99.9988% quality rate at Siemens’s Amberg plant!) and precision, that we may forget there are also potential intangible benefits.

Most important of those is customer loyalty, brought about by dramatic shifts both in product designs and how they are marketed.

Much of this results from the IoT lifting the veil of Collective Blindness to which I’ve referred before: in particular, our prior inability to document how products were actually used once they left the loading dock. As I’ve speculated, that probably meant that manufacturers got deceptive information about how customers actually used products and their degree of satisfaction. The difficulty of getting feedback logically meant that those who most liked and most hated a product were over-represented: those who kinda liked it weren’t sufficiently motivated to take the extra steps to be heard.

Now, by contrast, product designers, marketers, and maintenance staffs can share (that critical verb from my Circular Company vision!) real-time data about how a product is actually operating in the field, often from a “digital twin” they can access right at their desks.

Why’s that important?

It can give them easy insights (especially if those different departments do access and discuss the data at the same time, each offering its own unique perspectives, on issues that will build customer loyalty:

  • what new features can we add that will keep them happy?
  • can we offer upgrades such as new operating software (such as the Tesla software that was automatically installed in every single car and avoided a recall) that will provide better customer experiences and keep the product fresh?
  • what possible maintenance problems can we spot in their earliest stages, so we can put “predictive maintenance” services into play at minimal cost and bother to the customer?

I got interested in this issue of product design and customer loyalty while consulting for IBM in the 9o’s, when it introduced the IBM PS 2E (for Energy & Environmental), a CES best-of-show winner in part because of its snap-together modular design. While today’s thin-profile-at-all-costs PC and laptop designs have made user-friendly upgrades a distant memory, one of the things that appealed to me about this design was the realization that if you could keep users satisfied that they were on top of  new developments by incremental substitution of new modules, they’d be more loyal and less likely to explore other providers.

In the same vein, as GE has found, the rapid feedback can dramatically speed upgrades and new features. That’s important for loyalty: if you maintain a continuing interaction with the customer and anticipate their demands for new features, they’ll have less reason to go on the open market and evaluate all of your competitors’ products when they do want to move up.

 

Equally important for customer loyalty is the new marketing options that the continuous flow of real-time operating data offer you. For a growing number of companies, that means they’re no longer selling products, but leasing them, with the price based on actual customer usage: if it ain’t bein’ used, it ain’t costing them anything and it ain’t bringing you any revenue!

Examples include:

  • jet turbines which, because of the real-time data flow, can be marketed on the basis of thrust generated: if it’s sitting on the ground, the leasee doesn’t pay.  The same real-time data flow allows the manufacturer to schedule predictive maintenance at the earliest sign of a problem, reducing both its cost and the impact on the customer.
  • Siemens’s Mobility Services, which add in features such as 3-D manufactured spare parts that speed maintenance and reduced costs, keeping the trains running.
  • Philips’s lighting services, which are billed on the basis of use, not sold.
  • SAP’s prototype smart vending machine, which (if you opt in) may offer you a special discount based on your past purchasing habits.

At its most extreme is Caterpillar’s Reman process, where the company takes back and remanufactures old products, giving them a new life — and creating new revenues — when competitors’ products are in the landfill.

Loyalty can also be a benefit of IoT strategies for manufacturers’ own operations as well. Remember that the technological obstacles to instant sharing of real-time data have been eliminted for the supply chain as well. If you choose to share it, your resupply programs can also be automatically triggered on a M2M basis, giving an inherent advantage to the domestic supplier who can get the needed part there in a few hours, versua the low-cost supplier abroad who may take weeks to reach your loading dock.

It may be harder to quantify than quality improvements or streamlined production through the IoT, but that doesn’t mean that dependable revenue streams from loyal customers aren’t an important potential benefit as well.