Ready or not, COVID-19 forced organizations deeper into digital logistics

The state of the blockchain ecosystem, like everything else in logistics, has been impacted by the disruptions of COVID-19, necessitating companies to increase collaboration, question standard implementations and optimize digital logistics. 

During the BiTA @HOME Symposium, Alisa DiCaprio, head of trade and supply chain at R3, provided an overview of Corda, R3’s blockchain platform. Corda was built for the financial sector, but has been diversified to the automotive sector, working with companies like Daimler, Infosys, Icertis and Kratos Labs to manage fleets, implement machine-to-machine payments, track spare parts and brainstorm the future of mobility. Before COVID-19, R3 focused on Corda going live and digitally representing documents, and revving up on the standards.

“But in February 2020, all of that fell apart,” DiCaprio said. “I sit on the International Chamber of Commerce Digital Standard Working Group and we surveyed banks and asked them about the emergency measures they were putting in place. One bank responded that it is possible to go digital in an emergency. It was messy and not sustainable, but it happened, and that changed a lot of people’s minds about where things [with blockchain] are going.” 

With COVID-19’s disruption, DiCaprio said there’s less pressure and focus on the latest technology and more attention on application and making features reliable to specific problems customers are having. There’s also more focus on creating seamless integrations and enforcing the idea of a visible supply chain. 

“There is this acknowledgement that whatever digital technology it is, it needs to be able to scale up and down really quickly. That’s what really didn’t work during the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some solutions weren’t able to scale. We saw that with electronic signatures in particular. I worry that there will be a rapid wave of implementation of blockchain solutions before the standards are done.”

Logistics beyond land, air and sea

For James Regenor, Founder/CEO of VeriTX, COVID-19 provided an opportunity to build upon his 31-year career in the U.S. Air Force using 3D printing for aircraft parts. He recently helped design a low-cost 3D-printable ventilator to assist COVID-19 patients, which is now going through an FDA approval process. The logistics industry, Regenor said, has to look beyond the air, land and sea modalities. 

“With digital logistics, you can democratize manufacturing to the point of consumption,” said Regenor. “By looking at the convergence of blockchain with 3D printing, you are now able to create a digital asset. This is not e-commerce, it’s d-commerce, which is really slick because you can push something across a border to a ship or aircraft carrier directly from the manufacturer. You can shift the manufacturing to the point of use.”

While Regenor once thought blockchain technology would push the freight forwarders and brokers out of the industry, he admitted he was wrong and what they provide are essential relationships. Blockchain may redefine the values and roles of third-party providers, but even in peer-to-peer digital trusts created in blockchain, those key relationships are fundamental. 

By unmooring from cryptocurrency, Regenor said, blockchain can create enterprise solutions with social impact like food traceability or prevention of counterfeit goods. But challenges persist, such as interoperability, scale, value creation and behavior modification. 

Blockchain and COVID-19 both changed the “realm of the possible” 

Day one of BiTA @HOME concluded with a roundtable discussion of blockchain projections for the next 24 months. Regenor responded that before COVID-19, people were “dipping a toe into the pool” of blockchain, but the pandemic forced them to jump into the digital realm and see how to create value with data.

“The world that I see going into the future is that when a product comes off the manufacturing line, it’s traced all the way to the consumer,” said Vincent Annunziato, director at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C.  “This has innumerable avenues that are positive for the government, private sector and consumers themselves. I don’t know how that would affect the cost for the consumer, but for the security of knowing they got a legitimate product from a legitimate place, the safety of that is incredible.” 

As far as whether COVID-19’s impact could be metaphorically compared to the asteroid that eventually wiped out the dinosaurs, Chen Zur of Ernst & Young said COVID-19 could not be considered an asteroid, but could trigger the greatest economic depression we’ve seen in 100 years. What Zur thinks will become more ubiquitous is the importance of digital identity, organizations needing to prove the health of their data, and smart contracts managing the flow of money instead of banks. 

“The original bitcoin paper in late 2008 just showed up out of nowhere and pulled our blinders back and showed us the realm of the possible,“ Dale Chrystie, Blockchain Strategist at FedEx. “Even if blockchain never lives up what all of us think it will, it has changed the way we think. COVID-19 has also changed what we think is in the realm of the possible. In our case, we instantly created an airline within an airline to react to PPE. It forced us to do things that you could never brainstorm in a conference room.” 

One of the perils of COVID-19 was not being able to share patient data securely. Hilary Carter, managing director at the Blockchain Research Institute, reiterated the importance stewarding the blockchain technology forward to realize its operational benefits. Collaboration between competing organizations, she said, is “the order of the day.”