How to digitize and protect our technology supply chains

Digital Perspectives

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October 09, 2018
How to digitize and protect our technology supply chains
By: Mark Walton-Hayfield

Silicon chips are everywhere. They sit in the servers of all our major corporations and government agencies. Our military, aerospace industry and national critical infrastructure would grind to a halt without them. As the world becomes increasingly connected and the devices we use at home and work become increasingly "smart," our reliance on these chips is only going to multiply, and quickly. That’s why ensuring the security of the supply chains that manufacture, embed, code and ship them around the world is of paramount importance.

Our supply chains are outdated

What would happen if these supply chains were compromised? It’s a fear that’s been around for years but has been thrown into sharper context recently. As supply chains have grown, the technology and processes supporting them have changed little since the introduction of large-scale ERP and procurement systems decades ago.

The combination of the size of the supply chain and the modern risks that confront it means that we need a new approach. We need real-time visibility into provenance: Where has a product come from, who has handled it and has it been tampered with? We also need to get into more visible detail around exactly where it’s been along the way, how long has it been held in a warehouse or factory for, and for what purpose. Today’s supply chain is focused more on tracking the financial transactions, but overlooks the need to verify the product itself.

Greater visibility in this way can help companies identify if chips have been interfered with and malicious actors have the opportunity to launch cyber-attacks or for espionage–industrial or otherwise.

Until we move to a true digital supply chain model, where physical events have a digital form factor, we won’t be able to fully control the supply chain. This introduces significant risk for any item that uses an electronics system–from automobiles to aircraft, missiles to data centres. Such is the potential for large-scale disruption to businesses, governments and even entire economies that the time has come to ensure our technology supply chains are better protected.

Transforming our supply chains

Such is the scale of the transformation required that no one business is going to be able to achieve anything significant alone. If the complex, interconnected supply chains that underpin electronics products are to be both digital and secure, then a wholesale transformation needs to be set in motion through common standards and policies. This means that there needs to be a uniting force to ensure that businesses across different sectors come together to agree on best practice and ensure supply chains are digitalised rapidly.

Take the use of blockchain as an example. Blockchain enables a single, shared view of the supply chain for partners, suppliers, manufacturers, end customers and other relevant stakeholders. Importantly, this record is shared in near-real time by all authorised parties and can’t be changed: It’s an immutable ledger that can show exactly where a chip has been and what has happened to it throughout its lifecycle.

How it works

It is possible to obtain a unique digital identity for every silicon chip enabling it, and all software and documentation associated with it, to be monitored throughout its manufacture, transport and use in end products. Technologies like Programmable Unique Functions (PUF) and Blockchain already exist today. These can be combined along with other technologies like IoT and Artificial Intelligence to create an end to end solution which enables "track and trace" during shipment. As well as allowing manufacturers and OEMs to maintain a "digital twin" replica once a physical product has been delivered to a customer.

The result? They can continue to monitor the hardware and software and can provide additional capabilities for over the air updates, ensuring it works as intended and that there is no interference during both the creation of the product and once it is in operational use.

This type of solution provides the next generation of digital supply chain systems and makes it extremely difficult for malicious interference, counterfeiting or human error to occur on both the silicon chips and the end products they are embedded in.

From our work with clients in this area, we can clearly see that the technology is already available to make this happen. However, to take advantage of it, businesses and governments need to re-think and re-imagine what is possible. Doing so will ultimately prove to be critical in creating digitally transformed supply chains which improve security and auditability. It also aids in reducing the costs and overheads of transacting between buyers and sellers, which are so urgently required to protect and improve our technology supply chains.

For more information take a look at Accenture’s work on Blockchain solutions within the supply chain.

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