Manufacturing processes are growing increasingly complex — especially as the coronavirus pandemic spreads — in today’s global marketplace. With so many moving parts, it’s becoming more difficult to reliably and efficiently track actions and data along the supply chain. Blockchain-enabled smart contracts are emerging as a solution — one that provides transparency and ensures everyone along the supply chain is following the same set of agreed-upon rules.
With everyone on the supply chain sharing the same logic and data, manufacturers can automate time-sensitive processes and avoid costly dispute resolutions. Blockchain is on the rise, and Gartner predicts that 30% of manufacturing companies making more than $5 billion in revenue will have invested in blockchain-powered projects by 2023.
Implementing the technology and data infrastructure to convert processes into smart contracts can seem daunting, and companies that don’t hit the $5 billion mark will be slower to catch up.
The fear of failing after the investment can be a serious deterrent. But smart contracts save enough time and money for manufacturers that the costs of waiting might be greater than the upfront investment needed to get started.
The Value of Smart Contracts
The core values of blockchain are transparency and trust, and smart contracts play a pivotal role in providing these benefits. Taken together in a business context, blockchain-based smart contracts make it possible to avoid disputes. A smart contract is software that automates a single trusted version of an agreement between parties. They might rely on one version of data about what’s happening (or has happened) and record the results of the contract, such as funds being transferred in exchange for using a piece of equipment.
Without smart contracts, businesses working together in manufacturing have to maintain separate systems that encode business rules with slight differences. The data they use might also vary from the data other companies use, making it difficult to reconcile any issues. These differences lead to disputes that require significant time and effort to resolve.
The automation and data standards that smart contracts provide allow manufacturers to consider different ways to work with partners along their supply chain. Their partnerships can be based on performance or quality in ways that would have been impossible to implement — much less trust — without the use of blockchain and smart contracts.
How Do Smart Contracts Work?
In a blockchain system, the word “contracts” doesn’t carry the same meaning as legal contracts. Instead, smart contracts are more broadly used to encode logic that often isn’t written explicitly in a contract. Unlike traditional software, they’re used to create business logic that multiple parties can rely on and trust.
Many of us are familiar with the concept of business rules in software systems. In the blockchain world, smart contracts are the business rules shared by the users of the blockchain. Think of blockchain like a shared database: Smart contracts are the rules that define how data can be entered or changed in the shared database. Within the supply chain, smart contracts are typically the rules shared by multiple businesses in the supply chain that are also users of the blockchain system.
For most applications, smart contracts can be executable versions of traditional business contracts, or they might be new logic that coordinates long-running processes and activities across different businesses. They’re trusted because they’re created and housed on a blockchain, which means the code is typically visible to system developers, business analysts, and auditors.
Although smart contracts are triggered by some external event, such as a user’s action or a change in external data (a commodity’s price, for example), the code they run is normally approved in advance by all businesses involved. Currently, businesses are already utilizing blockchain-secured smart contracts for a range of supply chain processes.
For example, some companies combine smart contracts with Internet of Things sensors to record the movement of supplies into a manufacturing facility. Then, they automate payment for those supplies. Others record the operating conditions of a machine to determine if maintenance is required or gauge the condition of manufactured products to ensure standards are met.
Such contracts produce equipment usage records and quality control checks in real-time, and parties on all sides of the contract can trust the data. How we handle everything — from securing supplies to monitoring equipment and manufacturing products — can be improved with the strategic use of blockchain-powered smart contracts.
Being Smart About Which Contracts to Convert
As companies convert more intrabusiness processes into smart contracts, the benefits of doing so grow easier to recognize. Shipments and payment approvals can be verified in real-time, and disputes are eliminated or resolved immediately with no intermediaries. The time and cost savings are substantial.
By using these strategies to determine where to use smart contracts, companies of all sizes have a better chance at reaping the benefits much sooner:
1. Break down costs before the converting starts. The first time a company implements a smart contract, the costs of establishing the blockchain system will be relatively high. These initial costs can often be the biggest deterrent, especially for smaller, less tech-driven companies. Over time, though, the incremental costs of automating smart contracts will go down. Account for this initial cost by taking time to identify the contracts that are currently the most costly to execute.
2. Prioritize external contracts over internal ones. Not every contract needs to be a smart one. In fact, the costs of executing some processes might not justify the investment in automating them. Focus on agreements, contracts, and other expectations that are between the company and another business (or better yet, where more than two businesses are involved), and rule out internal agreements between departments. Because trust is less of an issue, internal disputes can be reconciled relatively easily. Putting them on a blockchain would just be overkill.
3. Focus on contract difficulty — not frequency. Because the goal of automation is to create less work, it’s tempting to go straight for the contracts that are executed most often. Instead, focus on the amount of effort it takes to use each contract rather than how often it’s used. High-frequency contracts might be executed with few or no disputes, whereas low-frequency ones might be costly to manage due to complex and/or unclear terms. These are much better candidates.
4. Start with material sourcing for maximum impact. To know for sure which processes can benefit most from conversion into smart contracts, look for people throughout the organization who deal with reconciliation, quality control, and/or audit support. Also, consider the data used in each transaction. Between both parties, how important is trusting that data? Material sourcing is often ripe for improvement, and trust in data is critical to the relationship between manufacturer and supplier.
The ability to create smart contracts is becoming one of the best-known benefits of using blockchain technology in the manufacturing realm. Investing in the technology might be costly at first, but getting in on the ground floor will be easier if you use it to turn the right processes into irrefutable smart contracts.
Alex Rosen is the vice president of business development at Chainyard, a blockchain consulting company focused on delivering production solutions that address financial services, supply chain, transportation, government, and healthcare pain points.