By Jay Derenthal
Walmart (WMT) has been applying for and winning blockchain technology patents aimed at solving problems ranging from logistics and traceability to trust and transparency to waste reduction. In doing so, the retail giant appears to be seeking a competitive advantage as an early adopter of blockchain technology for enterprise use cases.
While the majority of retailers around the world are only just beginning to consider how to integrate blockchain technology into their processes, Walmart is actively exploring the possibilities and launching trials as part of a multi-pronged strategy for driving supply chain costs down to keep pace with rival Amazon. In doing so, Walmart is aiding the entire blockchain space, helping to legitimize the technology’s promise and some of its hype.
Blockchain Technology for Health Records
In June, Walmart was awarded a patent for a system that would house a patient’s electronic health record (EHR) on a blockchain, enabling first responders and hospital emergency room personnel to see medical data when the patient is unable to communicate. An encrypted private key embedded in a wearable storage device (e.g., a bracelet, necklace or ring) could be decrypted by a biometric signature (e.g., face, retina, iris or fingerprint) and confirmed using a biometric scanner. Once decrypted, medical records can be pulled from the blockchain, a copy of which resides on the wearable device.
Crypto-Powered Energy Grid
Walmart won another patent in June for an electrical grid energy consumption management system that would use Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency. If an individual device exceeds its allocation of cryptocurrency, another device on the network could share its funds with the first one, to ensure continued functioning during the current billing period. If a particular storage unit is consuming more energy than expected, a different one on the same network using less than its allocated consumption can share the excess allotment with the first. The system could be alternatively programmed so that individual devices can sell excess cryptocurrency, or roll it over into its allocation for the next billing period.
A Blockchain for Shipping and Delivery
In July, Walmart was awarded a patent for a system of "locker docking stations" to be located at customers’ homes or at public transportation hubs. The system aims to help couriers secure a delivery signature even when there is no convenient time for both courier and recipient to meet. Enabling every delivery box to act as a node within the blockchain network will be expensive, so Walmart is leaving open whether or not blockchain technology would really be an integral part of the system’s first iteration. Part of the patented system envisions a future when items being delivered by an autonomous vehicle must be logged without human physical verification.
A Blockchain for Tracking Food
Walmart and IBM have partnered with Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick, McLane Company, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Unilever and other food companies on a cooperative blockchain project called Food Trust.
The coalition uses blockchain technology to track individual food items globally through multiple supply chains, recording where food is grown and by whom, who inspected it and the product temperature, among other data points.
One aim of Food Trust is to improve the speed with which food recalls are flagged and implicated products are pulled from grocery shelves. The Food Trust is now tracking data on about one million food items, including Nestlé canned pumpkin, Driscoll’s strawberries and Tyson chicken thighs.
The Evolution of Logistics Management
A future implementation of the food tracking system could be used for conflict resolution and payment tracking.
Conflict resolution is often delayed because of restricted access to data owned by stakeholders from different departments among Walmart's suppliers, logistics providers, auditors, as well within Walmart itself. Blockchain technology could provide the transparency required to avoid these conflicts or to automatically resolve them without complications.
Smart contracts would initiate payments to suppliers based on predetermined conditions, cutting down on the amount of labor needed to organize payments. Shipping suppliers and Walmart would share a distributed ledger for reconciliation and expedited payments.
With blockchain technology’s hype cycle perhaps at its peak, it may be hard for many in the C-suite to take it seriously. And, though Walmart is embracing blockchain technology as part of the evolution of logistics management, it could be years before it completely integrates it into existing systems. The retail behemoth’s legacy systems are driven by deeply ingrained processes that are hard to unwind.
Even so, Walmart’s high-profile forays into practical blockchain use cases signal that blockchain technology is being legitimized by big retail, e-commerce and beyond, with tremendous potential for the core technology to change the way we think about trust in business. Trust and transparency may be the next disruptive differentiators for enterprise business.