Blockchain Solution Employs NFC for Supply Chain Accountability

ShipChain and GTX are partnering to offer a solution that captures supply chain data throughout perishable goods' journey from manufacturer to consumer, with a goal of boosting visibility and trust.
Published: August 13, 2019

Logistics solution company ShipChain has teamed up with GTX Corp. to provide a blockchain-based solution leveraging Near Field Communication (NFC)-based sensor data to capture, manage and share conditions throughout the supply chain. The solution consists of ShipChain’s software using GTX’s NFC smart tags with built-in temperature sensors.

ShipChain offers a blockchain-based ship-and-trace software platform for its customers, which include food and pharmaceutical companies. Since its launch in 2017, the company’s universal visibility platform has focused on supply chain data, says John Monarch, ShipChain’s CEO. The goal, he says, is to insert visibility and subsequent accountability into the supply chain so that companies and consumers can each have trust in what happens as goods travel to customers.

The system initially provided vehicle tracking via GPS so that users would have data indicating where the vehicles, as well as the products contained within, were located along the supply chain. The software is being piloted by food companies. The challenge for supply chain members, Monarch explains, is knowing what took place at each stage of a product’s shipment. “There are often supply chain issues at every point where there’s a handshake,” he says, as goods transfer from one party to another.

ShipChain’s software aims to enable users to capture a permanent record that can be trusted by all parties. The firm is now taking that offering a step further, Monarch says, with its partnership with GTX. The two companies began working together in the spring of 2019. “Temperature has always been a goal of ours,” he states.

GTX provides sensor technology for asset and personnel tracking, predominantly using GPS-based data to capture the locations of goods and individuals. It began using NFC following the release of such functionality in iOS devices from Apple, says Patrick Bertagna, GTX’s CEO and chairman. The company then started building NFC tags that could be made in volumes of hundreds or thousands, according to the form factor of a customer’s specific needs.

In recent years, Bertagna says, customers had asked about blockchain-based solutions, which made a partnership with ShipChain a good idea. “We didn’t want to go into blockchain software development,” he recalls, adding, “This truly highlights the advantage of partnering,” since ShipChain provides the software required, with a secure, immutable record of each NFC tag read. Both companies can sell the full solution to customers. The focus is on the perishable food market, health care, pharmaceuticals, live organs and cannabis, to name a few.

GTX is currently piloting its NFC temperature sensor tags with Camanchaca, a fish company that imports hundreds of thousands of pounds of seafood out of Chile into ports in Los Angeles, Miami and Seattle. By applying a tag to each crate of fish, then reading all of those tags at various points in the supply chain, Camanchaca is gaining visibility into the conditions to which the meat is exposed before reaching a store, and it is able to provide that information to its customers.

To use the system, a company would first acquire the full solution from ShipChain, including the NFC sensor labels and the cloud-based software, which is provided as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. A 13.56 MHz tag, compliant with the ISO 14443 standard, is attached to each crate or pallet loaded with perishable goods; then, every time the shipment passes hands from one party to another, a worker reads the label via his or her mobile phone.

The credit-card-sized labels can collect data at intervals pre-set by a user, ranging from every 10 seconds to every nine hours. With the system in place, a user simply downloads the ShipChain app to access the data, and to add to the digital record of a product’s transportation from the point of manufacture or harvest to the customer. The data is then forwarded to the cloud-based software, which updates the digital ledger and displays the information for the individual using the phone. “Everything is time-stamped and encrypted,” Bertagna says. “There is no way to modify that data.”

As the product is stored or transported, the sensor continuously captures temperature data at the user’s pre-set intervals. It then goes dormant between measurements. At each transition point along the supply chain, as the item transfers from the custody of one partner to another, users can access and update that data. In that way, if the temperature has deviated beyond the appropriate thresholds, that information will be indicated and stored, and will thus be available to supply chain participants in real time so they can address the problem.

The sensor tags typically have a battery life of three to four months, though even if the battery dies, the data will be stored in the label’s chip so it can be captured when interrogated. However, temperature readings will not be captured without the battery. The system can collect up to 10,000 data points and then be reset to collect another 10,000 points.

The software enables users to not only confirm temperatures but also ensure that products are at the proper location, on schedule, and that an entire order (such as 10 pallet loads) remains together. Because the data is immutable, Bertagna says, the solution can provide data everyone can trust. “We’re going to know if perishables sat in the sun, and whether that impacts the quality of the product,” he states. “There’s no way for anyone to deny it—everything [is] time-stamped and encrypted.”

The tags are not rechargeable. However, by the first quarter of 2020, the company intends to release a reusable version of the sensor tag with rechargeable batteries. They can also be affixed via adhesive or be screwed into or taped inside a container. The tags come with a built-in chip from NXP Semiconductors.

According to Bertagna, the system will also help companies meet future regulatory requirements as government agencies release new guidelines regarding food safety and management. “It puts us ahead of the curve when it comes to government mandates,” Monarch adds. GTX also offers an NFC sensor tag that comes with a GPS device to track its own location. The company can also build Bluetooth and cellular units in the device, which is typically about the size of a zippo lighter.