From logistics to quality assurance: How blockchain and MPC can improve supply chain management

When planning a supply chain from a logistics perspective, it is often useful to conduct a little thought experiment and think of yourself in the position of the products involved. In order to do this, you should “be the box” and trace each step you take from the factory to your customer, how much time you need to arrive and all of the steps you need to go through to get there. Let’s say you are a product, a piece of machinery made in a factory in Pennsylvania, United States. Post-production, you need to be packaged a certain way and the relevant paperwork prepared for export and import to the client’s destination, e.g., Germany. For this purpose, export and import documentation need to be prepared, product specification sheets, customs declaration forms, etc. Before “leaving” the factory you need to be packaged and the documentation needs to be prepared and added to the packaging. You are then picked up by a courier, who potentially needs a copy of certain documentation, and brought to a storage/sorting facility. You need to be marked clearly beforehand or afterwards in order to insure you are not confused with another piece of machinery. Then when ordered by a client, you may need to be re-packaged, for which the necessary documentation needs to be available to the courier before being shipped out. You are then picked up by a logistics company, either the same as the one the courier was from, or another one, and transported to where you will be exported. This is one of two places where all of the paperwork has to be in order, as customs officials now could inspect the paperwork and potentially block or delay your export. Customs declaration forms, material safety data sheets, shipment listings, the invoice to the client, etc., all need to be available and correct.

Congratulations, you have passed customs and are now in “international customs limbo”. After being “exported” you are usually transferred to a toll-free storage area and are then sorted into a container or loaded onto an airplane. When you do land, let’s say in Germany, the customs officials will want the same, or even different paperwork — perhaps even the same paperwork but in a slightly different format (I cannot emphasize enough how sensitive managing customs can be). VAT and other import taxes are (or are not) charged based on the required product declaration, which can sometimes differ greatly between countries, and the purpose of use. The product (you) is then released to a logistics company that sends you to your customer’s address. Hurray, you have arrived at your destination!

What this thought experiment shows us, is that during every single one of these steps, there are multiple touchpoints with many different people involved. Each one of these touchpoints represents a moment where a variety of things could go wrong. What if one of the documents falls off the package? What if one of the logistics employees accidentally confuses one of the packages during re-packing at the storage facility, or confuses the documentation? While logistics companies tend to have contingencies and redundancies, things sometimes go wrong causing unnecessary delays in supply chains and, in some cases, lost business.

Blockchain logistics: seamless traceability and document access

Blockchain could be used to mitigate such logistics risks: a QR code representing a tokenization of a product could be added to each individual product package, in order to provide information on each individual product instantly and reduce the potential for confusion. Paperwork could be added to these product’s QR codes making them easily accessible to different parties along the supply chain and could also help in compiling different documents. If used correctly, a blockchain could also help keep track of shipments, both internally for logistics companies and externally for those managing supply chains. Sometimes shipments can be a bit like a black box and yes, sometimes products even get “lost”.

Furthermore, not only could documentation be made more accessible, but smart contracts could be created to streamline processes and e.g., create country-specific documentation automatically depending on where the product’s QR code is scanned. This could particularly come in handy if a product’s route is changed short notice, the product is checked by another country’s customs (e.g., another EU port of entry that wants things just ever so slightly differently) or the documentation required is changed at some point. The transparency provided by the blockchain could also make different actors such as customs authorities and/or logistics companies more accountable and provide a better basis for auditing/compliance. Furthermore, payment processes e.g., for VAT and other taxes, could potentially be automated, greatly increasing the speed of the customs clearing process.

GxP regulations: the pharma-level supply chain

The complexity of a supply chain increases with the added burden of quality assurance requirements, laid out by e.g., pharmaceutical GxP (Good practice, the “x” standing for a variety of different areas) regulations. Medical and pharmaceutical, food and cosmetic products require differing levels of traceability and quality assurance from the initial ingredients all the way to the patient. Each step in the production, testing, manufacturing, and distribution needs to be carefully and extensively documented and regarding logistics, the regulation laid out for e.g., pharmaceuticals is that of “Good Distribution Practice” (GDP). If you take the example of an agriculturally derived ingredient for a medicine, the process would be as follows:

A plant is harvested following (and documenting everything) according to Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) or Good Agricultural and Collection Practice (GACP) and then processed (e.g., the relevant ingredients extracted) according to Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and tested to Good Laboratory Practice (GLP). The product is then sent, of course following Good Distribution Practice (GDP), to the production facility, where it is further processed and combined with other ingredients to make a final product (under GMP) and then distributed to a pharmacy (again under GDP). Every individual production, testing and transportation step of each individual ingredient is meticulously documented and requires the ability to be audited by different parties as well as government entities. The idea being, that GxPs can assure two things for quality assurance quickly: 1) the assurance of quality of medical products on the market and 2) the ability to trace exactly where something went wrong in a pharmaceutical supply chain if there is some sort of defect. This all undoubtedly brings with it an immense amount of documentation, often in paper format, that needs to be stored for years by each individual party. Not exactly the most efficient way to store or audit a supply chain.

The MPC-blockchain supply chain: digitalized traceability, trade secret privacy

Both regarding the GxP traceability and less-regulated supply chains, blockchain technology could be used to reduce errors, streamline processes, facilitate documentation availability, and allow for better traceability and auditability for all parties involved. However, companies have legitimate reasons not to want to reveal certain information about their supply chains. A pharmaceutical company for example may not want to reveal the source of their ingredients, as a competitor may use that information to their advantage. This is where MPC could come in and be used to obfuscate certain sensitive information about the supply chain. Moreover, necessary documentation could only be made available to certain parties, such as customs authorities.

An MPC-blockchain solution built on Partisia Blockchain for logistics and quality assurance could look as follows: each step set out by GxP could be documented and listed on the blockchain, while only making the source of each documentation available to the parties necessary (e.g., a regulatory body of a manufacturing company). Each package shipped could be traced transparently by the customer, with a smart contract automatically generating documentation for each individual step in the supply chain and customs touchpoint. All of this can be done without revealing too much information to parties that do not need to have the full picture. Such a system could reduce errors, increase efficiency, allow for better auditability and more transparency of supply chains — while MPC keeps valuable trade secrets private.

Partisia Blockchain is dedicated to facilitating innovative solutions to real-life problems. Better supply chain and quality assurance are two of these problems.

Please contact us, if you have any questions about how our technology could improve your supply chain management or quality assurance.

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