Surprising Benefits of Combining IoT and Blockchain (they go beyond economic ones!)

One final effort to work this blockchain obsession out of my system so I can get on to some exciting other IoT news!

I couldn’t resist summarizing for you the key points in”Blockchain: the solution for transparency in product supply chains,” a white paper from Project Provenance Ltd., a London-based collective  (“Our common goal is to deliver meaningful change to commerce through open and accessible information about products and supply chains.”).

If you’ve followed any of the controversies over products such as “blood diamonds” or fish caught by Asian slaves & sold by US supermarkets, you know supply chains are not only an economic issue but also sometimes a vital social (and sometimes environmental) one. As the white paper warns:

“The choices we make in the marketplace determine which business practices thrive. From a diamond in a mine to a tree in a forest, it is the deepest darkest ends of supply chains that damage so much of the planet and its livelihood.”


Now blockchain can make doing the right thing easier and more profitable:

“Provenance enables every physical product to come with a digital ‘passport’ that proves authenticity (Is this product what it claims to be?) and origin (Where does this product come from?), creating an auditable record of the journey behind all physical products. The potential benefits for businesses, as well as for society and the environment, are hard to overstate: preventing the selling of fake goods, as well as the problem of ‘double spending’ of certifications present in current systems. The Decentralized Application (Dapp) proposed in this paper is still in development and we welcome businesses and standards organizations to join our consortium and collaborate on this new approach to understanding our material world.”

I also love Provenance’s work with blockchain because it demonstrates one of my IoT “Essential Truths,” namely, that we must share data rather than hoard it.  The exact same real-time data that can help streamline the supply chain to get fish to our stores quicker and with less waste can also mean that the people catching it are treated fairly. How cool is that?  Or, as Benjamin Herzberg, Program Lead, Private Sector Engagement for Good Governance at the World Bank Institute puts it in the quote that begins the paper, Now, in the hyper-connected and ever-evolving world, transparency is the new power.

While I won’t summarize the entire paper, I do recommend that you so, especially if blockchain is still new to you, because it gives a very detailed explanation of each blockchain component.

Instead, let’s jump in with the economic benefits of a blockchain and IoT-enabled supply chain, since most companies won’t consider it, no matter what the social benefits, if it doesn’t help the bottom line. The list is long, and impressive:

  • “Interoperable: A modular, interoperable platform that eliminates the possibility of double spending
  • Auditable: An auditable record that can be inspected and used by companies, standards organizations, regulators, and customers alike
  • Cost-efficient:  A solution to drastically reduce costs by eliminating the need for ‘handling companies’ to be audited
  • Real-time and agile:  A fast and highly accessible sign-up means quick deployment
  • Public: The openness of the platform enables innovation and could achieve bottom-up transparency in supply chains instead of burdensome top-down audits
  • Guaranteed continuity:  The elimination of any central operator ensures inclusiveness and longevity” (my emphasis)

Applying it to a specific need, such as documenting that a food that claims to be organic really is, blockchain is much more efficient and economical than cumbersome current systems, which usually rely on some third party monitoring and observing the process.  As I’ve mentioned before, the exquisite paradox of blockchain-based systems is that they are secure and trustworthy specifically because no one individual or program controls them: it’s done through a distributed system where all the players may, in fact, distrust each other:

“The blockchain removes the need for a trusted central organization that operates and maintains this system. Using blockchains as a shared and secure platform, we are able to see not only the final state (which mimics the real world in assigning the materials for a given product under the ownership of the final customer), but crucially, we are able to overcome the weaknesses of current systems by allowing one to securely audit all transactions that brought this state of being into effect; i.e., to inspect the uninterrupted chain of custody from the raw materials to the end sale.

“The blockchain also gives us an unprecedented level of certainty over the fidelity of the information. We can be sure that all transfers of ownership were explicitly authorized by their relevant controllers without having to trust the behavior or competence of an incumbent processor. Interested parties may also audit the production and manufacturing avatars and verify that their “on-chain” persona accurately reflects reality.”

The white paper concludes by also citing an additional benefit that I’ve mentioned before: facilitating the switch to an environmentally-sound “circular economy,” which requires not only tracking the creation of things, but also their usage, trying to keep them out of landfills. “The system proposed in this paper would not only allow the creation (including all materials, grades, processes etc) and lifecycle (use, maintenance etc) to be logged on the blockchain, but this would also make it easy to access this information when products are returned to be assessed and remanufactured into a new item.”

Please do read the whole report, and think how the economic benefits of applying blockchain-enabled IoT practices to your supply chain can also warm your heart.


Data Is the Hub: How the IoT and Circular Economy Build Profits

Fasten your seatbelts! I think I’ve finally zeroed in on the Internet of Things’ (IoT’s) most important potential economic benefit and how it could simultaneously help us escape the growing global environmental crisis:

make real-time IoT data* the hub of a circular economy and management mentality. It’s both good for the bottom line and the planet.

I started writing about circular business models back in the 90’s, when I consulted on profitable environmental strategies, i.e., those that were good both for the corporate bottom line and the planet.  It galled me that executives who railed about eliminating inefficiency thought reducing waste was for tree-huggers. Semantics and lifestyle prejudices got in the way of good strategy.

Ford’s River Rouge Plant (1952 view)

I could see that it was vital that we get away from old, linear models that began with extracting resources and ended with abandoned products in landfills. Ford’s massive 1 x 1.6 mile River Rouge Plant, the world’s largest integrated factory, was the paradigm of this thinking: ore was deposited at one end, made into steel, and cars came out the other (Hank’s penchant for vertical integration even led him to buy rubber plantations! If you have any illusions about the ultimate impossibility of top-down control, watch the PBS documentary on Ford — he simply couldn’t share power, even with his own son — and it almost ruined the company). The linear model worked for a long time, and, truth to tell, it was probably the only one that was feasible in the era of paper-and-pencil information flow:  it was so hard to gather and transmit information that senior management controlled who got what information, and basically threw it over the transom to the next office.

As for any kind of real-time information about what was actually happening on the factory floor: fugetaboutit: all that was possible was for low-level functionaries to shuffle along the assembly line, taking scheduled readings from a few gauges and writing them on a clipboard. Who knew if anyone ever actually read the forms, let alone made adjustments to equipment based on the readings?

Fast forward to 2015, and everything’s changed!

The image of the circular corporation popped back into my head last week while I was searching for an image of how the IoT really can change every aspect of corporate operations, from product design to supply chain management.  I was happily surprised that when I Googled “circular economy” I found a large number of pieces, including ones from consulting gurus Accenture and McKinsey (the most comprehensive report on the concept is probably this one from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation), about the bottom-line and environmental benefits of switching from a linear (‘take-make-dispose’) pattern.

But how to make the circular economy really function? That’s where the IoT comes in, and, in my estimation, is THE crucial element.

Visualize everything a company does as a circle, with IoT-gathered real-time data as its hub. That’s crucial, because everything in a profitable circular company revolves around this data, shared in real time by all who need it.

When that happens, a number of crucial changes that were impossible in the era of linear operations and thinking and limited data became possible for the first time:

  • you can optimize assembly line efficiency because all components of the factory are monitored by sensors in real time, and one process can activate and regulate another, and/or managers and assembly-line workers can fine-tune processes (think of the 10,000 sensors on the GE Durathon battery assembly line).
  • you can integrate the assembly line with the supply chain and distribution and sales network as never before (provided that you share the real-time data with them), so materials are delivered on a just-in-time basis) and production is dictated by real-time data on sales (the SAP smart vending machine, integrated with logistics, is a great example).
  • you can optimize product redesign and upgrades and speed the process, because sensor data from the products as they are actually used in the field is immediately fed back to the designers, so they have objective evidence of what does, and doesn’t work properly (think of how GE has improved its product upgrade process). No more ignorance of how your products are actually used!
  • from an environmental standpoint, having sensors on key components can make it possible for you to recover and profitably remanufacture them (closing the loop) rather than having them landfilled (I was excited to learn that Caterpillar has been doing this for 40 years (!) through its Reman Program, which “reduces costs, waste, greenhouse gas emissions and need for raw inputs.”).
  • you can create new revenue streams, by substituting services for actual sales of products.  I’ve written before about how GE and RollsRoyce do this with jet engines, helping clients be more efficient by providing them with real-time data from jet turbines in return for new fees, and Deere does it with data feeds from its tractors. Now I learn that Phillips does this, with industrial lighting, retaining ownership of the lighting: the customers only pay for the actual use of the lights. Phillips also closes the loop by taking the lights back at the end of their life and/or upgrading them.

As I’ve written before, creating the real-time data is perhaps the easier part: what’s harder is the paradigm shift the circular economy requires, of managers learning to share real-time data with everyone inside the enterprise (and, preferably, with the supply chain, distribution network, retailers, and, yes, even customers). When that happens, we will have unprecedented corporate efficiency, new revenue streams, satisfied customers, and, equally important reduce our use of finite resources, cut pollution, and tread lightly on the earth.  There you have it: the secret to 21st-century profitability is:

real-time IoT data, at the hub of the circular enterprise.

*Oh yeah, please don’t drop a dime on me with the grammar police about the title: in fact, I’m a retired colonel in the Massachusetts Grammar Police, but I’ve given up the fight on “data.” From my Latin training, I know that data are the plural form of datum, but datum is used so infrequently now and data with a singular verb has become so common that I’ve given up the fight and use it as a singular noun.  You can see the issue debated ad nauseum here