Bringing New Vision to Logistics

Article by Tom Serres

The world is full of black hats, lurking in all corners of digital commerce. In our previous analysis of the alleged Super Micro hack, we showed common vulnerabilities in contemporary supply chains and the role blockchain can play in patching them.  However, useful as blockchain is in establishing and tracking provenance, it would have little impact on detecting alterations in hardware components without the accompaniment of other tools.
As we continue to build cognitive supply chains that support agile, adaptable distribution networks, companies must invest in comprehensive technology strategies. The tools that firms will need beyond blockchain include artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT). Collectively these tools are a firm remedy for the security gaps and information silos still prevalent in today’s logistics networks.

Supply Chains Are Susceptible

Here it is useful to briefly revisit the key points of the original Bloomberg investigation. Subcontractor Super Micro is alleged to have had production facilities infiltrated by the PLA to install chips on server motherboards. These motherboards were destined for many of the world’s largest corporations as well as American military and government installations. Theoretically, the plan was to steal trade secrets and proprietary information from these stalwarts of industry and government.
Whether the report is entirely accurate  is incidental to the massive holes it exposes in modern logistics. Even those denying the veracity of the story do not contest the plausibility of its facts, just their involvement. Unnervingly, the situation is all too plausible, perhaps even inevitable, given the current state of supply chains.

The Discerning Stare of AI

As discussed, blockchain alone would have little ability to stop a similar infiltration from occurring but AI and its many applications, on the other hand, could have either significantly mitigated or entirely eliminated the negative repercussions. For instance, one of the more recent uses of AI for supply chain security involves an X-Ray machine that scans hardware as it leaves the production line. The platform filters the scans through an AI-based detection platform that, with time and repetition, learns what a motherboard and virtually any other hardware component should look like.
The quality control and security applications promise to lend supply chains significant enhancements in reliability and stability. Concerning the server manufacturer, intruders could have still compromised those facilities and altered the motherboards. But with X-Ray and AI technologies in place detection would have been immediate, allowing quick containment of damage. Of course, these tools also offers many more pedestrian yet wildly useful benefits within a practical context. Able to identify everything from weather to demand shifts, AI and predictive analytics lend companies prescient insights and heightened security.

A Connected World

With so many moving parts, supply chains rely on assets spread throughout multiple locations, often across the world. In the case of Super Micro, the use of international subcontractors significantly increased risk exposure. But an alternative is possible. AI applications could have detected alterations in the motherboards and the use of IoT technology might have caught the intrusion itself, not just its aftermath.
Embedding IoT sensors allows virtually any asset along the supply chain to assess external factors. Sensors feed that data into a robust ERP system that can collect, analyze, and distribute the information in real time. Decision makers can then act on those insights.
Production facilities well-equipped with IoT sensors could’ve detected the Super Micro security lapse before the intruders could do any damage.  IoT sensors are far more subtle and sensitive than cameras and motion detectors. Smart Dust, for instance, consists of granular sensors that can be attached or even sprayed onto any surface, detecting external variables and wirelessly transmitting the data to a network system. Equipped with Smart Dust the manufacturing pipeline can detect intruders even ones well aware of a subcontractors’ security systems.
No single technology is a comprehensive salve for  modern supply chain woes. But when implemented in conjunction with each other, they can form the cognitive logistics networks that will power tomorrow’s commerce.
Editor’s Note: This report is the third in a five-part series exploring the future of supply chain integrity. You can read parts one and two here and here. Check back in tomorrow to read the next entry, and take a look at AV’s white paper for more insight into the future of logistics and security.