RFID Lab blockchain solution tested by Nike and Macy

Judy Rubio

On Wednesday, the RFID Lab of Auburn University has published a whitepaper claiming blockchain is a great help for exchanging data in the field of retail supply, especially for major clothing brands as Nike or Macy.

These and other retailers have been partially using Hyperledger Fabric nodes for their supply chain as part of the CHIP study - Chain Integration Project. The results proved the huge potential of blockchain, being a great solution for sharing graded data, especially when dealing with more than ten thousand products. The examples are popular products moving from one distribution center to another, such as some shoes from Nike’s collection for kids and coats from Michael Kors. 

When it comes to retailers’ experiments using new technologies for  their supply chain, RFID Lab is definitely at the forefront. Even though Allan Gulley (from Blockchain board) mentioned they are relatively new to the distributed ledger technology.

As of now, many retailers are controlling their products movement by using special RFID tags - radio frequency identification. They keep internal tabs and track product movements. To make things simple, Gulley mentioned that Nike uses RFID solution for tracking its inventory - the company marks every single box of their shoes with an RFID tag. Though, every retailer tag uses different ways of storing data, which is why data interaction is impossible.

Gulley compares it to speaking different languages. He has mentioned that every company has its own approach of sending the data. As well, there was no general language or platform to share it in a similar way.

This leads to two obvious solutions. Firstly, there is a need to create a general language for retailers. And secondly, they need to have a platform.

Gulley claimed around two third of the research time was taken by the language issue. Gulley, together with his team and lots of students operating in the lab, has managed to create some sort of “translator tool”, which modifies various data flow the way it meets EPCIS Belgian standard GS1.

At the first glance Hyperledger Fabric integration seemed to be an easier way, though it appeared there are some issues as well, Gulley mentioned. The initial capacity of the system’s transactions was limited due to some rookie mistakes. Such, instead of measuring transactions per second, the greenhorns were doing it vice versa. Though, after the optimization throughput was increased by more than 6,500 percent.

Gulley has also mentioned it did not take them much time to understand that blockchain technology is unproven. 

The IBM has presented Food Trust for testing blockchain supply chain trial, which records the summary of their cargo. In its core, it has a slightly similar idea as the mentioned study. Gulley mentioned the CHIP is “granular”, meaning it is way more complex, since it reviews big data for each product.

The final concept works in a following way: retails are divided in pairs with their own separate channel for running their proof of concept. Nike has its own supply chain which is integrated vertically. Though, far more retailers get support from third parties.

Huge amount of products have matched across the nodes of proof of concept. For example the items amount Nike has make records of to the distribution center was 72,575; 3,766 from PVH and Kohl’s. Macy has chosen a more complex way for trial from HermanKey, as well as Macy’s distribution center supply chain and Macy’s store. As per the study, they have matched the total of 62 products from all.

The study showed that the total amount of items written in blockchain has reached 222,974. Without a doubt, this number will see a significant increase once it gains popularity.

Gulley claims the current system performs well with the current amount of data. Though, in future RFID tags would need to cope with huge amount of products of retail supply chain. He is aware they would need to use a much complex and powerful system for this purpose.

As of now, RFID LAB would go through some sort of discovery phase to understand the business value of DLT and RFID solutions for data sharing. Considering their volumes, even a small update may bring about positive changes to business as a whole.

Gulley foresees blockchain’s success in the field of supply chain in case of using complex reliable service providers powerful enough to handle increasing volume.

The next stage will certainly attract more technology players to it. This solution will see a rapid growth once it breaks the barrier of a few nodes and operators.