Supply chain has become a relatively common enterprise use case for blockchain, adding clarity and trust to the slew of processes involved in a product’s journey to the customer. Tech giant Seagate is entering the pilot stage of its blockchain project, using the technology to follow hard drives throughout the supply chain.
In 2018, Seagate dove into blockchain, using IBM’s blockchain platform, as well as working with them as a major hard drive customer. “Last year, we started a proof-of-concept [PoC] with IBM, and the proof-of-concept was about product provenance,” Seagate research group managing technologist of data security Manuel Offenberg said to me in a July 18 interview. “Earlier this year, we wrapped up the proof-of-concept.”
Technological advancements over the years have allowed greater reach for products. Customers in the United States can now order items from across the globe with ease, a feat not common even one hundred years ago. With this greater reach also comes greater complexity. Products undergo a myriad of steps and stops before reaching the buyer. Many companies have harnessed blockchain, the technology made famous for underpinning digital asset bitcoin, to bring greater clarity and trust to the marketplace.
Seagate’s proof-of-concept stage expressed the effectiveness of blockchain, in sync with its products, Offenberg explained. “We just went through an executive review on the next step, and the next step is starting a pilot with IBM,” he said. Seagate aims to prove the project’s scalability through this pilot, he noted. Seagate has not yet kicked off its pilot but recently received the approval to move forward with it, Offenberg added.
Seagate’s pilot with IBM will seek to give the customer confidence that the Seagate product received is the genuine product that Seagate originally sent, Offenberg detailed. “In this case, IBM is both the customer of these drives, as well as the technology provider for the underlying Hyperledger Fabric platform,” he said. Hyperledger Fabric is one of the main players in blockchain when it comes to gateways for businesses to apply the new tech.
Not only does Seagate’s supply chain blockchain endeavor track products to the customer (IBM in the case of the pilot), it also tracks those products back to Seagate in the instance of a product return, Offenberg explained. In part, the solution helps ensure that genuine devices, rather than counterfeit ones, are returned because of the added data and tracking blockchain incorporation provides.
Additionally, when those hard drives are returned for reasons such as defects, etc., they may still contain customer data on them. Offenberg mentioned “certified erase,” as a solution. “We want to make sure that these devices have no PII [personally identifiable information] data on them,” Offenberg said.
When a drive fills in a customer’s system and the drive comes back as part of its returns process, if we can prove that the drive was cryptographically erased, and therefore, the information is no longer on the device, then, from a risk perspective, this reverse supply chain can treat that device differently.”
Offenberg noted the importance of data protection, with General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) having an effect on the European side of the table, and the mentioned project providing a type of solution.
Seagate is working with IBM as its customer for the pilot, although Seagate has plans to branch out to involve “other partners in the reverse supply chain,” Offenberg said. “That’s the intent,” he added, also clarifying that Seagate derives much of its sales from larger players. “The larger volumes are still going to cloud service providers or OEMs [original equipment manufacturers].” Therefore, Seagate currently has its focus set on larger players.
As far as end-consumer retail is concerned, Seagate products already contain a “brand protect ID,” which involves a QR code consumers can scan to reveal product details, Seagate product security officer Monty Forehand explained to me in an interview.
These retail products, however, are not yet tied to the blockchain. Based on the results of its blockchain pilot, as well as other factors, Seagate might move toward bringing the mentioned blockchain supply chain solution toward the end-consumer level down the road, Forehand noted.
Adding blockchain to the mix would bring aspects such as greater trust and speed to the marketplace, Forehand added. Regarding Seagate’s preliminary work with IBM so far, the company is “involving the cryptographic identity of the device in the blockchain transaction, such that the digital trust of the product itself is part of the transaction,” he said. This is in contrast to “something that’s printed on a label,” he added.