A group of W. P. Carey School of Business graduate students at Arizona State University didn’t know the COVID-19 pandemic was going to happen when they built a blockchain prototype to improve medical supply tracking and delivery to nongovernment organizations.
The prototype demonstrates the transparency and accountability available with blockchain technology, using a smartphone to track an order of amoxicillin in real time as it moves through the distribution process from initial order by the aid agency to the end-user who will distribute it to those in need. At each point in the distribution channel the details of the order — purchase order number, item type and quantity received — must be digitally confirmed. If there are any discrepancies or changes along the way, previous approvers are notified.
“What we are doing right now is going to be a help for the future for nonprofit organizations,” said Jiyuan Zhang, one of the students who developed the prototype.
The student group was comprised of Bhargay Reddy Veeraballi, Bhanu Suraj Malla, Mahindra Venkat Lukka, Megha Goyal, Manasi Desai and Zhang — all of which earned a master’s degree in business analytics in May. They joined forces with computer science graduate students Kaushal Malghi and Sai Shruthi Mallineni to develop the prototype solution that won ASU Research Enterprise's annual innovation challenge. ASU Research Enterprise connects applied research and development with government agencies and takes early-stage development to government and industry partners.
Five competing teams were challenged to apply blockchain or blockchain-related technologies to solve a logistics or supply chain management security problem. Diverse solutions were submitted with some applying blockchain solutions to strengthen the security of the military supply chain and others using blockchain technology to improve the management of charitable contributions to nonprofit organizations.
Due to the remote learning environment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, teams submitted video presentations and supporting documentation in lieu of in-person demonstrations. The winning team was notified via Zoom and their names will appear on a trophy.
Why blockchain technology?
Blockchain was made popular in 2008 with the invention of Bitcoin cryptocurrency. It records all transactions permanently between two parties on a public decentralized ledger that is time stamped, providing a digital trust for those using the technology.
Blockchain technology provides trackability, traceability and trust in goods and financial resources,” said Tim Breitbach, assistant professor of logistics and supply chain management at Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. “Everyone is familiar with cryptocurrency and digital coin but there is a potentially larger opportunity with supply chain security and supply chain tracking and traceability.”
Breitbach and his institute partnered with ASU Research Enterprise on this year’s challenge to see what solutions might be available to the Air Force — which has one of the largest parts inventories in the world — to strengthen its supply chain security and reduce the possibility of counterfeit parts and trace funds and resources.
“There’s a ton of potential with these innovation challenges such as the depth of innovation and potential with universities,” he said. “There’s a huge advantage in something like ASURE and the innovation challenge’s speed. The DOD and government isn’t known for going fast. The innovation challenge was really quick. They were able to develop prototypes and research in a matter of months.”
The prototype that improves the nonprofit supply chain could evolve and be influential in other crises, while providing huge savings for the United States Agency for International Development.
“USAID gives billions to NGOs for developing and underdeveloped countries,” said Hitendra Chaturvedi, professor of practice in the W. P. Carey School of Business and the team's faculty adviser. “Ten (percent) to 15% never reaches the people who need it.”
The key challenges are transparency, visibility and corruption, Chaturvedi said, adding that blockchain offers a single source of data that cannot be removed but can be modified if other users validate the data, which negates incorrect data.
“There are hundreds of ledgers spread across the world in a public network,” he said. “In a public domain you don’t have to worry about tampering. As long as it’s not captive within a company, then it will shine.”
The most important thing users of blockchain must decide is how the data will be stored in the distributed networks and then audit checks can be automated, said Patricia Swafford, clinical assistant professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business and the team's faculty adviser. She said blockchain technology is superior to barcodes, radio frequency tags and enterprise resource planning software.
The second place team was also comprised of W. P. Carey students who recently graduated with master’s degrees. Kumar Adavelly, Venkata Raghuram Veerabhotla, Vijaya Bharathi Mummidi, Niveditha Venkatesan and Kenny Tjong used blockchain technology to combat counterfeit parts in the military using dendrite technology, which uses fractal structures with code to generate unique 64-digit numbers for tracker IDs on parts to make them tamperproof in the supply chain.
“It shows where parts are coming in from and staying in the supply chain,” Adavelly said. “It would be nice to start out with the defense industry itself because they’re lives are at stake and they’re fighting for the nation.”
Blockchain is expected to become more common as more industries look to this technology to solve for weaknesses in their current processes. It is becoming a way to increase accountability and transparency throughout supply chains, health care, insurance, contract management and the financial industry.
“Moving forward, resiliency in supply chains is going to be a huge thing that is talked about,” said Mohan Gopalakrishnan, chair of the supply chain management department and associate professor in the W. P. Carey School of Business. “The kinds of things the team did is going to find the mainstream in the years to come.”
This type of challenge is another example of the innovation happening at ASU.
“To take on a challenge of this nature, to come together and deliver something quickly, this is an example of why ASU is the most innovative university,” said Gopalakrishnan, who was one of the second-place team's faculty advisers.
What’s next for the prototypes?
The winning challenge team that developed a prototype for tracking goods to nonprofits is assessing options of how to take their solution to the next level.
ASU Research Enterprise will facilitate connections with businesses, organizations and donors that could help the team establish a business, develop a partnership or raise funds to advance their plans and privatize their ownership, said Christian Fortunato, director of engineering for ASU Research Enterprise.
“Once it’s in the marketplace it has a much greater impact,” he said.
Blockchain technology could be used to track medical supplies — new and contaminated products — and even medical providers for the COVID-19 pandemic, offering valuable information about where medical providers and products are going and where they are coming from, Swafford said.
“Given the broad applications there are a lot of different sectors and opportunities,” she said, adding that the application could be used for disaster response and FEMA too.
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