IoT and Blockchain in Perishable Supply Chain

One of the promises of ‘immutable’ blockchain is the removal of human-error from governance, the agency which was single-handedly responsible for the biggest of historical blunders in the past century or so. In theory, blockchain is a digital entry of records in ‘blocks’, with each of the next-block attached to the previous one to form an unending series of chain. Storing the data on a blockchain not only provides a single view of the truth but also prevents data from ever-being falsified. This, in particular, is of great interest to cold chain experts and stakeholders.

Also, In-store is this flashy and relatively-new concept of IoT, capable of feeding unprecedented terabytes of data to complex algorithms and computing machines monitoring our everything around the globe. Gazillions of sensors on types of equipment, these ‘things’ behind the Internet-of-Everything featuring interconnected devices to the tune of 50 Billion implements by 2020. Enhancements in tracking and tracing capabilities are going to facilitate the real-time monitoring of the conditions of goods while in transit.

While perishable goods mean those products that need to be refrigerated before transportation for retail, in order to increase their shelf-life, for ensuring items stay edible, or for maintaining their potency. A temperature-controlled supply chain that transports perishable goods is known as a cold chain or cool chain. Theoretically, a cold chain is an uninterrupted series of activities involving the production, storage and distribution of refrigerated goods. A host of auxiliary activities associated with equipment and logistics help maintain the desired low-temperature range, thus completing the cold chain.

Essential to the delivery of safe food, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, efficient cold chain logistics ensure the strict-enforcement of predefined temperature ranges. Thus preserving the desirable qualities from perishable goods.

An unbroken series of refrigerated environments may mean the difference between working and spoiled food or vaccines. As a result of the the advent of IoT and blockchain technologies makes it possible to acquire real-time evaluations of the state-of-transportation of high-quality food and pharma products. This is crucial for addressing the gaps in cold chains which have been elaborated in the following section, along with how blockchain and IoT can clean-up the cold chains and make them much more efficient.

Gaps in Cold Supply Chains

The existing cold supply chain ecosystem consists of many different parties, usually working as per their own convenience, and with each shipment changing numerous hands before retail. The ‘perishable’ product is though being monitored. But as the conduct is in silos, it leads to multiple record systems with restricted data-informational flows in static form. Supply chain experts would easily testify to the gaps in this globalized ecosystem.

Perishable goods within the global supply chain are some of the biggest gainers if these gaps are blocked via data-powered IoT and backed with the immutability of blockchain. Agro-food goods such as farm products and pharmaceutical items that need to be refrigerated are atypical for illustrating the present-day SCM scenario.

Vaccines tend to lose their potency if they’ve been exposed for long to temperatures beyond the recommended range of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius. In a study conducted by UNICEF for monitoring the temperature of vaccines supplied to various regions, 33.3% of storage units in developed countries and over 37% in developing countries contained vaccines that had been exposed to temperatures below recommended ranges. In the literature review of 45 studies, another interesting find was the proportion of vaccine shipments below recommended temperatures – It 38% in developed countries, as compared to 19.3% in their developing counterparts. All of this means a health-hazard waiting to happen as the patient populations haven’t been adequately inoculated. Apart from resulting in wastage of precious resources.

How IoT and Blockchain can Transform Cold Chains
IoT-based supply chain management featuring storage and integration of data on blockchain enables real-time visibility into shipment conditions and state of products. Placing all data on blockchain in real-time further helps in transferring the summary of conditions to a distributed ledger. The supply of perishable goods necessitates a high level of end-to-end control, with levels of product integrity directly proportional to the levels of integration and collaboration shared by the supply members.

Global supply chains operating with IoT based processing are data-centric with an interconnected network of gadgets of all shapes and sizes. The new oil (Data) is captured from connected devices (RFID Tags, Sensors, etc.) that are attached to the shipped products. This provides real-time information about the transported items, along with parameters such as location, temperature, ETA, the speed of transport and storage conditions, etc. As every stakeholder can view the information within the cold chain at all times in a seamless manner, system capabilities at ensuring the product integrity are boosted.

IoT captured data is summarized at regular intervals and then transmitted to a record system based on distributed ledger technologies and accessible to all the parties. The power of blockchain lies in transaction visibility and its certainty with records. Meaning, records are public and once entered cannot be altered by fraudsters and cybercrime enthusiasts. With the mainstream deployment of IoT and blockchain tech, stakeholding-parties can collectively track the movement of the cold chain packaged product through the supply chain.

The Bottom Line: Consumers can comprehensively gain information about the products’ health and potency, right from the dispatch to delivery and including historical temperatures, full chain of custody, packaging information, storage conditions and much more.

Tracking the flow –

Any cold supply chain based on IoT connectivity and Blockchain technologies would have a single data store which would be accessible for all. Trust, which is crucial for maintaining the supply is ensured through several key features:-

The parameters of cold chain packaged products including location, temperature, packaging and storage conditions are collected. Thus ensuring collectivity.

A distributed ledger (via blockchain) using cryptographic techniques ensures security.

Standardized storage and capture of all data. The single data store in the blockchain network for all parties to access ensures visibility.

As a mandate, all parties must give their consensus before a new transaction is added to the shared ledger in the blockchain. This ensures accountability.

Immutable transactions recorded on the ledger that cannot be altered. This ensures provenance as well as trust within the system.

In a scientific study conducted by Feng Tian (part of a cumulative dissertation) from the Vienna University of Economics and Business (An Agri-food Supply Chain Traceability System for China Based on RFID & Blockchain Technology), researchers combined WSN, GPS, GIS and computer data processing technologies for information management and data gathering processes. The paper conclusions – Such a system manages each of the links in the agri-food supply chain, from farm-to-fork. It realizes the monitoring, tracking and traceability management for the safety and quality of products. With the rapid development of RFID, Blockchain and other emerging technologies, it is certainly possible for products to be thoroughly comprehended, checked, carried and trusted as they travel along the cold chain. Thereby effectively enhancing the quality and safety of agri-food products.

Another research paper presented in the 14th International Conference on Service Systems and Service Management, and conducted by a group of researchers Feng Tian, Alfred Taudes, and Jan Mendling (A Supply Chain Traceability System for Food Safety Based on HACCP, Blockchain & Internet of Things) concluded on the same lines. The study worked around a  decentralized traceability architecture based on the internet of things and blockchain technology/ The system facilitates real-time information to every cold supply chain member on parameters such as the safety status of food products. A blockchain-powered decentralized system facilitates a global cold-supply ecosystem that is secure, transparent, distributed, and also collaborative in nature. Such a system in practice significantly improves the efficiency and transparency of the cold supply chain. Thereby enhancing the overall safety of perishable goods apart from rebuilding the consumer’s confidence in the industry.

 By using the internet of things and blockchain technologies, decentralized information system capable of disruptive innovation in the supply of perishable goods can be realized. Basically an omnipresent information-rich platform for all supply chain members (including government departments and third-party regulators) based on openness, transparency, neutrality, reliability and security. The right combination of emerging technologies would result in a cold chain traceability system for real-time food tracing, and significantly improve the performance of the food logistics company. It’s not long before we see numerous real-life applications in the cold chain industry.