By James Lawrence - Knowledge - 4 weeks ago

Proving Physical Authenticity in Supply Chains

From blockchains inception in cryptocurrencies, one of the first industries to leverage the technology was logistics. It’s logical; complex, multifaceted, truly global supply chains - where often a consumer demands to know every step along a journey from raw material to the product in his or her hand. A distributed open-ledger, where an item’s production and journey is represented transparently as a growing immutable lineage, from when it was dug from the ground to perhaps when it will be discarded back into it, blockchain just makes sense.

Blockchain has already proven innumerable times to be faster, more secure and cheaper than traditional logistics. In September 2016, IBM in partnered with Maersk to track a container of flowers from Mombasa, on the coast of Kenya, to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The single container accumulated over 200 pieces of logistical paperwork with the processing priced at $300, or around 15 percent of the cargo shipping cost of $2000. According to the World Trade Organization (WTO) reducing barriers in the international supply chain could increase worldwide GDP by up to five percent and total trade volume by 15 percent.

While blockchain has no doubt exhibited the ability to streamline supply chains and challenge counterfeiting and fraud, the technology, by itself, lacks the ability to physically anchor items onto the blockchain (it should be noted, cryptography does prevent duplication). Blockchain technology exists in a digital realm, physical items are represented on a blockchain with a cryptographic hash that will most likely correspond to a scannable code on that physical item.

We know that the cryptographic hash is immutable, but the physical representation of it is not. A QR code is a common way to represent an item’s unique hash, but at the end of the day, that complex piece of cryptography is just a sticker on your item, what stops someone from taking a legitimate product, peeling the sticker off and placing it on a counterfeit? Let’s take a look a few projects that look to create physical anchors, safe from tampering, for supply chains.

Founded in November 2016 Waltonchain is a Chinese-Korean project that combines hardware in the form of radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips with blockchain to create a general purpose technology they call the Value Internet of Things (VIoT). The team has developed and patented both an RFID-capable chip that’s smaller than one mm and costs around five cents per unit, as well a scanner that reads and directly uploads information onto the blockchain.

According to a Good Audience Medium post the system will allow “wireless transmission network technologies such as video sensing, recognition, perception, location sensing, etc., to establish a full range of information awareness.” Walton has already been recognized as an industry leader in smart technologies in China are already involved with the lucrative One Belt, One Road project.

Walimai is another Chinese project looking to stop counterfeiting through a combination of RFID tags and blockchain. The formation of the project was motivated by China’s 2008 milk scandal where milk and baby food products were adulterated. There were an estimated 300,000 victims, 54,000 babies were hospitalized and six died from kidney stones and other kidney damage from melamine, a chemical added to increase the protein levels of the products.

According to the Walimai white paper, the project has found a perfect balance between a robust and fragile label. Robust enough to remain securely attached to the product throughout its journey to the consumer and fragile enough to break easily if the product is attempted to be tampered with. Walimai co-founder Alexander Busarov showcases the labels in a video available here.

IBM have also put their hand in the physical identifying field. Their contribution, is what they call the “world’s smallest computer,” a chip smaller than a coarse grain of salt that packs the power of a 1990s-era x86 processor. (The Verge notes that this would be just enough to run the vintage computer game Doom). The chip is powered by a tiny, integrated solar panel and communicates with other devices by means of a single LED communications unit.

Dust Identity, a Boston-based startup has created a physical anchor completely outside the realm of RFIDs, and for all intents and purposes, the most tamper-proof. The project, infinitely cooler than computer chips, is a coating of diamond dust, the width of a human hair, on whatever product is to be verified, a light is shone on the coating and the light pattern it reflects is its unique identifier.

As Ophir Gaathon, CEO and co-founder of Dust Identity explained to TechCrunch, “Once the diamonds fall on the surface of a polymer epoxy, and that polymer cures, the diamonds are fixed in their position, fixed in their orientation, and it’s actually the orientation of those diamonds that we developed a technology that allows us to read those angles very quickly,”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is behind the science that makes Dust Identity possible, the project even received early support from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). While counterintuitive, the coating is inexpensive too, as the diamonds are low-cost industrial diamond waste, as a company spokesperson explains, “We start with diamond waste (for example, [from] the abrasive industry), but we developed a proprietary process (that’s of course highly scalable and economical) to purify and engineer the diamond waste into dust.”

The Dust Identity project is perhaps the most exciting of those noted here, as apart from outside the box thinking, it would be the achieve the highest level of security. The light patterns the coating creates are completely random and can never be reproduced, it is also entirely safe from tampering, as any attempt to remove the identifier would result in destroying it completely.