Supply chain professionals are all too familiar with the persistent challenges that plague the industry–a lack of inventory visibility, not having complete or trustworthy data to share with partners, or not enough business process consistency are a few issues that come to mind. However, somewhat ironically, it often takes industries joining together to collaborate to solve these issues that ultimately helps companies enjoy longevity and stand out from their competition.
It’s this “collaborate to compete” concept that has inspired so much discussion around what blockchain can do to help improve the supply chain. With a long history of facilitating collaboration to adopt new technologies and business processes, GS1 US has applied this open community spirit to our work on Hyperledger Grid, a collaboration with Cargill, Target, Intel and Bitwise IO. This project builds on Target’s earlier proof of concept based on the open source solution ConsenSource that was focused on certifying suppliers for its private label paper products. Experiencing success in this test, the retailer branched out to explore how Hyperledger Grid could be applied for better food traceability with supplier, Cargill.
For the past several months, the Hyperledger Grid team has investigated the role of GS1 Standards in blockchain development. We’ve discussed how to help create the ideal foundation for supply chain-based blockchain applications to flourish. The partners understand the need to standardize static data, such as a product’s Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) and core attributes, as well as more dynamic details like time, location and temperature readings that are important for transaction-based communications, such as procurement and track and trace.
All of this is reflective of this overall nascent stage of blockchain’s life cycle where supply chain partners are still agreeing on what is “the right data” to share on a blockchain. Regardless of how they are piloting blockchain, many companies are finding that this is the time to say “enough is enough” and end the churning of poor data quality that has particularly plagued supply chain for many years.
Several GS1 Standards provide consistency and structure to data transactions on a blockchain, increasing the likelihood that the intended outcome will be achieved:
GTIN – This product identifier plays a critical role in global commerce, as it helps businesses manage items on both the physical and digital shelf. Unique like your own fingerprint, a GTIN is composed of numbers that identify the company making a product and numbers that identify the product. If every item is uniquely identified with its own GTIN, it retains an identity regardless of where it is in the supply chain.
This number is what is encoded into a UPC and scanned at checkout, but is mightier than this function. Identification that is persistent beyond the four walls of the company is key for a blockchain implementation, given the technology’s immutability. A universal data language that starts with product identification can ensure that the right data is stored and communicated further down the chain.
Global Location Numbers (GLN) – Similar to GTINs, these are numbers that uniquely identify organizations and locations in the supply chain. GLNs give companies the flexibility to identify any type or level of location required for supply chain visibility. They can identify a warehouse, a retailer, a hospital, even something as specific as a store shelf. Or, they can identify a company’s legal or functional entities as they relate to a particular business transaction, for example as buyer, seller, or carrier.
So many blockchain use cases today revolve around supply chain visibility, with specific focus on locations and origins. For example, Nestle teamed with Carrefour to put traceability directly into the hands of consumers using the IBM Food Trust blockchain platform. Carrefour shoppers can track Mouseline instant mashed potatoes from Nestle’s factory to Carrefour’s stores by scanning a QR code on the packaging with a smartphone. In addition to providing extended product details, such as the product’s production date and quality control parameters, it also reveals the locations of warehouses and the farms that supply the potatoes. Without standardized location identification, such a level of transparency would not be possible.
GS1 barcodes – For data to be shared among trading partners (with or without a blockchain), it must be captured. More trading partners, particularly in the food industry, are leveraging the GS1-128 barcode to capture dynamic product information and serialized logistics data, such as expiration date and batch/lot numbers. Using these barcode labels, companies enable the automatic recording of product-specific information whenever a barcode is scanned, for a more real-time view of where products have been and where they are going.
Electronic Product Code Information Services (EPCIS) – EPCIS is like a standardized application program interface (API). EPCIS acts in a similar way to capture and share information about the movement and status – the what, where, when and why – of products, logistics units and other assets in the supply chain. EPCIS simplifies the capture and description of physical events, allowing companies to more effectively rely on a single version of the truth about supply chain and logistics events.
EPCIS is increasingly deployed in sectors such as fresh foods, healthcare, and logistics to improve efficiency. It is versatile, in that it can be used with a number of different data carriers, including GS1 barcodes and EPC-enabled radio frequency identification (RFID). Unlike “batch oriented” data transmission mechanisms, EPCIS is more suitable for blockchain because it more efficiently documents the potentially massive amounts of event-based data.
These concepts from the GS1 System are being incorporated into Hyperledger Grid from the ground up. Adopting standards means putting structure around both static and dynamic data. Without a common platform to share data, blockchain applications may fail to deliver on promises of consistent efficiency and visibility. GS1 Standards have an inherent credibility, neutrality and interoperability to help make data usable for blockchain today and scale for tomorrow.