IBM rolls out blockchain network to address supply-chain issues caused by COVID-19

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IBM's new Rapid Supplier Connect blockchain network helps to identify new, non-traditional suppliers who have pivoted to address the shortage of equipment, devices, and supplies. (LuckyStep48/Getty Images)

Tech giant IBM is leveraging its expertise with blockchain technology to help address medical supply chain shortages due to COVID-19. 

The company has launched a blockchain network, called Rapid Supplier Connect, to help government agencies and healthcare organizations more quickly identify and onboard alternative vendors of supplies and equipment.

The network helps to identify new, non-traditional suppliers who have pivoted to address the shortage of equipment, devices, and supplies. The network is based on IBM's existing Trust Your Supplier Blockchain Network. 

Rapid Supplier Connect is available at no cost until August 31, 2020, to qualified buyers and suppliers in the U.S. and Canada, the company said.
Suppliers and buyers currently joining the network include several major New York healthcare providers, such as Northwell Health, and The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation, which is onboarding more than 200 American suppliers from its 3,000 global community members.

Project N95, a new clearinghouse to help connect healthcare workers to medical equipment suppliers, will serve as a clearinghouse for information on COVID-related suppliers in this IBM-led effort.

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During the ongoing health crisis, many large and small businesses from outside the traditional healthcare procurement system are reconfiguring to mass-produce masks, gowns, and other essential supplies.  

Businesses like apparel companies now making personal protective equipment (PPE) and automotive companies making ventilators are typically disconnected from the healthcare procurement system. 

But vetting new suppliers can be time-consuming, healthcare leaders say. Given the ongoing demand for PPE and other supplies, healthcare organizations need to be able to quickly find and verify new vendors.  

In order to begin purchasing from them at scale, buyers—including hospitals, state procurement divisions, pharmacies and others—need help identifying these new suppliers, efficiently vetting and on-boarding them, and understanding their real-time inventory availability.

In New York City, Northwell Health has had adequate supplies to protect patients and staff during the increase in New York COVID-19 patient cases, according to Phyllis McCready, vice president and chief procurement officer at Northwell Health.

But using alternative vendors has played a critical role, she said.

"It is through creating our own group purchasing organizations (GPOs) and supply chain and joining forces with non-traditional suppliers that we have maintained an adequate stockpile of PPE and other equipment and supplies," she said.

The IBM blockchain-based network also helps identify existing supplies and excess inventory going unused, allowing hospitals to make it available to others and redirect supplies where they are needed most, the company said.

Other organizations supporting the blockchain network include Dun & Bradstreet, which is contributing identity resolution, firmographic data, and supplier risk and viability scores. RapidRatings is providing financial health data on suppliers, and KYC SiteScan will provide "Know Your Business" due diligence report access. 

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Thomson Reuters will provide access to its CLEAR customer due diligence tool, to provide buyers with access to real-time and comprehensive data to vet suppliers and identify potential fraud risks.

The potential for blockchain

Blockchain has been touted as a key technology tool to improve the supply chain, particularly during the COVID pandemic.

While many companies have proof-of-concept projects with blockchain, widespread adoption has been slow due to government regulations and companies needing to agree on governance and business models, two professors recently wrote in a Harvard Business Review article.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has helped to push through the obstacles to blockchain adoption, wrote Remko van Hoek, professor of supply chain management at the University of Arkansas, Walton College of Business, Mary Lacity, Walton professor of information systems and director of the Blockchain Center of Excellence at the University of Arkansas, Walton College of Business.

Blockchain technologies are uniquely suited to verifying, securing, and sharing data, they’re ideal for managing multi-party, inter-organizational, and cross-border transactions, they wrote.

Blockchain can offer greater visibility into the supply chain and can create a permanent audit trail along every link in the chain.

"The virus has revealed the weaknesses in our supply chains, our inability to deploy resources where they are most needed to address the pandemic, and difficulties in capturing and sharing the data needed to make rapid decisions in managing it. Blockchain solutions that have been under development for years have been repurposed and unleashed to address these challenges," van Hoek and Lacity wrote.