(Bloomberg) -- Vendors of mining giant BHP Billiton Ltd. typically keep track of rock and fluid samples and analyses with e-mails and spreadsheets. A lost file can cause major and expensive headaches since the samples help the company decide where to drill new oil wells.
BHP’s solution: Early next year, it will start using the blockchain, a new, shared database technology that can’t easily be changed or erased. A technician taking a specimen can attach data such as collection time, a lab researcher can add reports, and all will be immediately visible to everyone who has access. No more lost samples or frantic messages.
BHP is one of many large businesses putting the blockchain to use. For several years after it emerged in 2008, the technology behind the digital currency bitcoin held court on the fringes, attracting attention mostly from startups. Then in the past year or so, several large companies, including Nasdaq Inc. and Standard Chartered Plc, began testing it. Now comes the next phase: actual deployment of the blockchain in their operations, with the first major wave expected in 2017.
Financial institutions have been in the vanguard of the technology’s adoption. ASX Ltd., the Australian stock exchange, expects to have a commercial blockchain platform within 18 months, Deputy Chief Executive Officer Peter Hiom said on a call with investors in August. The Nasdaq’s blockchain-based technology for voting in shareholder meetings, as well as a technology that enables private company stock issuance, will be deployed in 2017, said Fredrik Voss, a vice president at the stock exchange operator.
“We don’t want to be alone in this space, we like when we see others announcing rollouts of solutions,” Voss said in an interview. “I hope we’ll see solutions beyond proof of concepts, with real assets or processes rolled out late this year, next year.”
Seen as revolutionary in the world of finance, the blockchain’s software code can let banks, investors and others in the market transfer and record assets and exchange information without an intermediary. One security feature is that entries to the blockchain can’t be erased or changed, typically unless the parties using it agree. While it has the potential to reshape the way industries operate by reducing third-party costs, increasing transparency and dramatically speeding up transactions, implementation can be slow amid regulatory challenges and as companies overhaul their processes.
Much like the advent of smartphones and social media, “the promise of the technology is great, but it takes time for solutions to be developed based on the technology,” said Gil Luria, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. “Blockchain may take even longer than other transformative technologies because it involves actual value which has to be safeguarded as well as significant regulation.”
Still, even highly regulated industries are starting to climb aboard. An International Business Machines Corp. survey of 200 banks in 16 countries, released in September, found that 15 percent of them expect to use a blockchain-based technology in operations next year and 51 percent expect to in 2018 or 2019. In September, Standard Chartered used the blockchain to complete a cross-border payment with another bank, and is looking to deploy the technology next year.
Several non-financial companies have started blockchain-based systems: IBM is using it to help some of its 4,000 vendors resolve disputes. Its blockchain ledger, which was put to use in September, can help vendors come to an agreement and get paid within 10 days, instead of the 44 it often took with its old, largely manual system.
“In 2017, we think we’ll probably have financial incentives on the ledger” for vendors, Jerry Cuomo, a vice president at IBM, said in an interview. “It’s actually cheaper for the network to operate.”
Startup Everledger, a fraud-detection system for the diamond industry, is using the blockchain to track 1.4 million polished gemstones for certificate houses, insurance companies and brokers globally. Like other nonfinancial companies, Everledger has advantages that have helped it deploy the blockchain faster: It’s not as heavily regulated, and doesn’t have decades-old processes and technologies in place to overhaul.
“We don’t have to have a regulator at the table to sanction some of these changes,” Leanne Kemp, Everledger’s CEO, said in an interview. “That enables some industries to move far quicker than the financial industry.”
Still, the challenges for all companies in moving the blockchain from testing to production often aren’t related to the technology or regulations. Getting users up to speed takes time, as does integrating it into existing systems, such as accounting and inventory management, Voss said.
‘Start From Scratch’
“The hard part with the blockchain technology is creating new business models,” said Chris Burniske, an analyst at ARK Invest, an investment adviser offering two exchange-traded funds with bitcoin exposure. Essentially, companies deploying the blockchain often have to scrap their existing business processes and start from scratch, he said.
Another issue has been that the technology lets all parties involved talk together and that means squeezing out some industry middlemen, who resist such changes.
“They all read about the innovator’s dilemma,” Burniske said. “They are trying not to get disintermediated.”
For now, in most first deployments, the blockchain is running parallel with companies’ current systems, often older databases or spreadsheets like Microsoft Corp.’s Excel. Wealth Migrate Holdings Ltd., which runs an online investing platform for about 1,200 investors, began using the blockchain in October to track users’ real-estate investments, alongside its old system. The idea is partly to reassure its investors that the company’s bookkeeping is solid, said Jaco Maritz, Wealth Migrate’s chief information officer.
Wedbush’s Luria said he expects blockchain-based technology to drive much of financial services delivery in the next five to 10 years.
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