What Is Blockchain Technology? And, Does It Deliver Any Real Business Benefits Today?

We ask the experts to breakdown the real meaning of tech buzzwords and trends as part of a new FAQ series

Follow our new “Ask the Expert” series on Your Edge to learn more about today’s hot technology topics, including blockchain.
by Drew Ehlers
May 13, 2019

Technology innovation seems to be moving at the speed of light, and we’re frequently inundated with new technology buzzwords: the Internet of Things (IoT), Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (yes, there’s a difference), Digital Transformation, Big Data, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and more. There are media headlines and analyst reports touting each technology to be the “next big thing.” Companies are calling you to sell you on the benefits of their specific technology platforms, promising huge business gains. And a host of market dynamics, including growing customer demands and increased competition, are forcing you to embrace modern technologies in order to capture and maintain your performance edge.

But where do you start?

Your early adopter peers and competitors are sharing their experiences with the buzzy, emerging, data-centric technologies – both successes and lessons learned – via case studies and industry event presentations. This may give you hope that your business could secure similar benefits by making similar technology investments. All the while, your risk-averse bosses may be questioning whether any of these new “disruptive” technologies are truly going to be game-changing for your organization – or if they’re going to change too much and become disruptive to the point of chaos and failure. After all, many organizations (maybe even yours) are still working to secure executive support for broader adoption of mobility solutions – a fundamental technology tool in the digital age.

To make matters more confusing, the meaning, applicability and marketing of certain technologies such as AI, BYOD, and IoT can vary greatly between the consumer and enterprise technology sectors.

So, we’re kicking off a new “Ask the Expert” series on Your Edge to help you get to the bottom of these buzzy technologies so that you can gain a better understanding of how they could impact your bottom line. First up is a Q&A with Zebra technology evangelist Drew Ehlers, who will tackle the topic of “blockchain”:

Your Edge Blog Team: From our understanding, blockchain was originally created “to serve as the public transaction ledger of the cryptocurrency bitcoin?” But it’s clearly a term taking over conversations in the enterprise space, beyond the banking or financial sectors. Why would someone like a manufacturer, transportation and logistics provider, retailer or even government organization be talking about this tech?

Drew: Blockchain provides a decentralized database or digital ledger that allows digital information to be recorded and shared, but not copied. Within the cryptocurrency landscape today, if you were to land in London at Heathrow and buy a ticket via an app for the Heathrow Express to Paddington, the credit card company would take a cut for processing the transaction. But, the railway company could use blockchain to save on the credit card processing fee and move the entire ticketing process. That, in turn, would move the transaction to a two-party transaction event between the railway company and the passenger. There are also numerous applications within the enterprise space. Take, for example, a bio-pharmaceutical manufacturer who produces vaccines that must be kept between 2-8 degrees Celsius. For that vaccine to remain stable and usable, it must be kept in that temperature range as it travels globally throughout the supply chain – via air, sea and truck, in and out of warehouses and ultimately to the point of care. Each one of those movements and touches must be recorded; there must be an immutable way to audit the vaccine in real time and confirm that it was kept within range at all times. By utilizing blockchain, manufacturers, customers and industry oversight organizations are able to audit in real time where that vaccine has traveled, confirm its temperature at any point of time – and at any location –and feel confident that when that vaccine is administered at the point of care, it’s stable and safe to administer to the patient.

Your Edge Blog Team: Through our research, we learned that blockchain has actually been around for over a decade. Yet it seems to have really gained traction among the business community in the last 2-3 years. Why is that, in your opinion?

Drew: Over the past few years, the value of blockchain in the enterprise space has been explored with proof of concepts. Though, it has been used in areas such as gem tracking and mining for longer periods of time. As the strain of e-commerce, a growing global supply chain and a need for more audit and compliance have all grown, so has the need to drive automation and trust in faster ways across multiple sectors. Blockchain has emerged as a tool that can help facilitate digital trust and immutable records of events/data. With a need to automate trust, authentication and authorization, blockchain can be used as part of a broader technology solution to achieve those outcomes.

Your Edge Blog Team: What are the top three benefits of blockchain, in your opinion?  

Drew: Trust; identification and tokenization of physical objects; and authenticity of democratized data.

Your Edge Blog Team: Can blockchain deliver these benefits as a standalone technology solution? Or do they need to be tightly integrated with other systems to make such an investment worthwhile?

Drew: In enterprise environments, blockchain’s value comes from its ability to capture an event at the edge and register that event to the distributed ledger that’s used to search historical records during compliance audits, or authenticity of goods requests and other business reviews. However, if you take an ecosystem approach and combine blockchain with Internet of Things (IoT) or Industrial IoT (IIoT) technologies, you are able to drive more transparency into supply chain management. You also gain the ability to democratize data in a trusted, secure manner amongst a multitude of cross-functional stakeholders in order to trade data and drive further value into managing a supply chain from origin to consumer – like the manufacturer-to-patient vaccine example I shared before, or a farm-to-fork product flow. Even better, if you were to capture an event at the edge via an RFID read event, then you could send that event to the cloud for automatic registration to the blockchain without needing any integration into back-end systems.

Your Edge Blog Team: We know that you’re going to be giving a presentation on blockchain during Zebra’s upcoming APPFORUM events. Why is Zebra talking about blockchain?

Drew: We have been running proof of concept (POC) pilots for the past 10 months with our Savanna Early Adopter customers and partners, including Problem Solutions. Our partners in these POCs have developed new applications leveraging our Zebra devices (IoT/IIoT) and our Savanna Data Service Blockchain Traceability API. By using our core portfolio of mobile computers, RFID, printers and sensors with our Blockchain Traceability API, these companies can capture scan, read, print and contextual data events and register them directly to the Blockchain ledger of their choosing. Separately, Zebra is engaged with The Auburn University RFID Lab on the CHIP Project, which was announced on May 9.

Your Edge Blog Team: The CHIP Project sounds very interesting. Can you tell us a little more about it?

Drew: It is a very exciting initiative, as the team is developing a blockchain proof-of-concept for serialized data exchange in the retail and apparel supply chain specifically. They are using Zebra data capture systems and IoT infrastructure to help enable end-to-end visibility and data-driven decision making throughout the value chain via this new blockchain solution. The first phase of the project is expected to be complete in November 2019, so stay tuned for more insights on what we’ve collectively learned and accomplished.

Your Edge Blog Team: It seems like blockchain is far from mass-market maturity. Though, arguably, this technology has been well proven in many sectors over the past few years. Where do you think blockchain can make the greatest – and most immediate – impact today? Which types of companies stand to benefit the most from blockchain right now?

Drew: Blockchain is certainly in its infancy within the enterprise space. However, many companies, partners and government agencies are testing blockchain. They are curious about how best to use the technology to solve problems and deliver a more secure way to drive supply chain transparency. The supply chain stakeholders that can realize immediate benefit from blockchain – and the challenges upon which blockchain can have the greatest impact – include:

  • Pharmaceutical manufacturers – Anti-counterfeit goods; origin of ingredients and allergens
  • Bio-pharmaceutical manufacturers and supply chain stakeholders – Temperature-sensitive bio-pharmaceuticals and vaccines
  • Manufacturers of goods – Anti-counterfeit goods
  • Food manufacturers – Food safety with temperature-sensitive foods; origin of ingredients and allergens
  • Any relationship where immutable and event-driven “trust” needs to be established
  • Any relationship where there is a way to share specific data in a secure and democratized way

Your Edge Blog Team: What about 12 months from now? Are there emerging blockchain applications that you think readers should pay attention to this year?

Drew: Over the next 1-5 years, there is going to be an abundance of legislation around food and drug safety compliance in order to secure supply chains and increase transparency and safety for the end consumer.  Blockchain will be a key pillar of the ecosystem that will help companies achieve these objectives. It will enable users to get answers to transactional inquiries in minutes and days versus months or years depending upon their existing operating environment or blockchain (and broader technology) approach.

Your Edge Blog Team: If a customer was debating whether or not to invest in a blockchain solution today, what would you recommend?

Drew: If a company is evaluating whether to invest in blockchain as an ingredient to solving problems, it should first focus on identifying the key problem it is solving for and the outcomes it would like to achieve. Then it should choose the partners best equipped to help build a solution using an ecosystem approach and run a pilot. It’s always better to start small rather than try and boil the ocean.

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Editor’s Note:

If you’re a Zebra customer or member of the Zebra developer or partner communities, we invite you to join us at the upcoming Americas APPFORUM 2019 event on October 1-2 in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, to learn more about how blockchain can be used to improve the efficiency, security, and quality of your many supply chain management functions.

Speakers from IBM and Zebra will drill down more into specific blockchain applications during these Enterprise IT and Software events, which feature both Thought Leadership and Development tracks.

Register before August 16, 2019, to take advantage of the $150 early bird discount.

Not able to attend APPFORUM? Email us at SavannaPartnerTeam@zebra.com to learn more about how Zebra can help you evaluate and integrate blockchain technologies within your current system architecture.

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Drew Ehlers
Drew Ehlers is helping Zebra build its transformative data services strategy and business, especially as it relates to the Zebra Savanna platform. He is exploring the many ways that emerging technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain can be used to deliver actionable business intelligence to customers.
































































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