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OM in the News: Walmart Tries Out Blockchain

February 14, 2018

Walmart found blockchain can improve the speed and accuracy of product recalls

Blockchain isn’t only about bitcoin. The technology best known as the record-keeping system behind cryptocurrencies seems poised to play a broader role in business, where it could change how supply chains work.
Walmart is using the blockchain technology to manage supply chain data for mangoes, berries and dozens other products. “The system, built with IBM, will help Walmart figure out where bad food came from during product recalls,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 7, 2018). 

Here is how it works: A blockchain ledger allows participants to add blocks of information after each party runs algorithms to evaluate a proposed transaction. If the parties agree that the transaction looks valid — identifying information matches the blockchain’s history and follows the rules created by the participants — then it will be approved, time-stamped and added to the chain.

For example, after a mango is picked from a tree, it makes many stops before getting to a store shelf. Farmers, packing-house workers, and others along the way use a mobile app from Walmart to send details such as harvest dates, locations and images of their fruit to the retailer’s blockchain. The process is simpler and more secure than the array of barcodes, scanners, paper forms and individual databases Walmart usually uses.

In a simulated recall under the blockchain system, Walmart traced the origin of a bag of sliced mangoes in 2.2 seconds. With Walmart’s other systems, the same exercise took 6 days, 18 hours and 26 minutes. This speed and accuracy could save sales that otherwise would be lost as stores pull all mangoes off shelves while waiting for trace-back results. It could also prevent illness and death. “We’re all after trust in the supply chain, especially in a crisis,” says Walmart’s head of food safety.

Classroom  discussion questions:

  1. Explain what a blockchain is.
  2. Why is the concept so potentially valuable as a supply chain tool?


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