Blockchain has been a buzz-word for over a year now in the mass media, so much so that every major player in the tech world has been looking into it for some realistic application. But what’s ironic is that the first major company to go live with something built on blockchain is Walmart. And it’s being used to QC lettuce.
Hold up, what’s Blockchain again?
Where blockchain technology first captured public appeal was with cryptocurrency. The idea that we could forge value (out of nothing more than code) that could supplant the modern financial infrastructure was the stuff of science-fiction. But, not too long ago, cryptocurrency threatened to do just that.
Cryptocurrency makes sense for blockchain because, at its core, it’s a series of serial numbers that has its lineage embedded within the code those numbers create. This is important because every serial number reflects the “paper trail” of that code.
When dealing with currency, we rely on banks and financial institutions to keep track of what goes in and out of our accounts. Blockchain currency would eliminate the need for individual institutions—creating a decentralized financial system (basically, every point of access becomes a teller window).
So, blockchain is a hack-free, 100% reliable, serial-number-linked chain of registry that allows anything it’s attached to be fool-proof as well as easily traceable. And it’s this second point that means the most for Walmart. Being traceable means that, instead of relying on the shipper’s clipboard, you can just scan the product upon receipt and verify its entire history.
When salmonella breaks out, anything that could even potentially be contaminated needs to be destroyed. This can translate into hundreds of thousands of items lost if the contamination source can’t be verified. Since most larger retailers, like Walmart, rely on shipments from all over the country, it can be difficult to remember which shipment the bad product was in, meaning they’re disposing of mostly perfectly fine items— due, essentially, to clerical inefficiencies.
Non-digital things like paper trails, shipping logs, and even in-store migration records can be edited or modified after they’ve happened. And even most digital records can be edited. This creates an unreliable record of transactions even if the contamination source can be located. Who’s to say it wasn’t mis-recorded?
Blockchain transactions, on the other hand, are encoded with a specific data set that includes the previous transactions. This record cannot be altered without significantly changing the code, which makes it obvious if it’s been tampered with. This makes the chain unbreakable and extremely reliable. Not to mention mobile.
Wherever blockchain goes, there am I
Since it’s code-based, tracking items is as simple as accessing the code that’s imprinted on the bar code or serial number of the product. This immediately validates—without question—the product’s integrity (in the case of Walmart’s lettuce), making it obvious which products, specifically and only, need destroyed.
Until now, applying blockchain to specific, real-world situations has proven less than easy for most companies. This is likely due to the motivation for creating something new and exciting. In most circles, when you combine blockchain with IoT devices, the enthusiasm skyrockets—it’s what everyone is trying to do. But starting with something simple like transaction records is, in a sense, taking us back to the original form of record keeping—a system that’s been in place since the dawn of trade.
Logistics is simply not as thrilling or newsworthy as potentially solving the problem of automation with blockchain, or revolutionizing banking with cryptocurrency, or locking down autonomous vehicles through unbreakable code (which are the biggest blockchain concepts). But, for our money—and for Walmart’s—keeping lettuce bacteria free is where the rubber of this technology meets the road.
Stress-free Caesar? Priceless.