Supply Chain Matters had the opportunity to attend the 2016 Crossroads Conference hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL). Crossroads is an annual event that began 12 years ago for the benefit of MIT CTL corporate sponsors, and each year the conference brings together leading-edge industry and global supply chain trends and insights developed by MIT and external academic focused research. This Editor has been fortunate to be invited to this event for many prior years, and this year was no exception.

The agenda included a presentation by Sertac Karaman, MIT Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics on the timely topic: Autonomous Vehicles: Driving Change in Logistics Networks. In the talk, Professor Karaman traced the recent history of self-driving cars after Google developed the first autonomous vehicle. What was most interesting was his predictions for what’s next in this area, which he indicated would be broader deployment of autonomous vehicles operating in distribution and logistics centers within the next two years, and within what he described as suburban focused driving environments within the next six years. One of the remaining challenges to be addressed, according to Karaman, was urban delivery and logistics requirement. Here, he referenced efforts underway from UK based Starship Technologies directed at a specialized autonomous delivery vehicle that can navigate urban landscapes. The summary conclusion is that there has been substantial technological advancement in autonomous vehicles over the past decade and the forthcoming two-year immediate impacts in supply chain environments will be in low-speed, low complexity environments in existing distribution centers and warehouses. Beyond that, there are many other opportunities as technology advances continue.

A presentation by Matthias Winkenbach, Director of the MIT Megacity Logistics Lab at CTL addressed the topic: Big Data and the Journey to a More Efficient Last Mile. Winkenbach reminded the audience that 60 percent of future GDP growth will emanate from 600 global cities, and that the logistics industry must tackle the current huge density of retail outlets that exist in mega city landscapes through more advanced use of big data integration techniques involving geographic, delivery requirements, physical sensor and other pertinent data sources. By combining publically available data such as income demographics, density of commercial establishments, road network density and capacity, with transactional data related to orders, MIT researches have been able to plot and simulate logistics needs for the delivery of food and beverage deliveries in some of the world’s most dense mega-city complexes. The integration of this data was described as the ability to correlate customer stops with special delivery services, to optimally identify delivery person walking time needs (off-vehicle operations) along with providing drivers information on optimal parking locations or congestion points to avoid at certain times.

A rather interesting insight from the Q&A session of this presentation was actual audience polling that revealed that a lot of data is actually being collected by organizations but is not being currently leveraged because of a number of challenges related to data accuracy, understanding, size and complexity as well as technical competence.

A fascinating but very concerning presentation came from Retsef Levi, Professor of Operations Management, MIT Sloan School of Management whose topic was: Adulteration Risks in Global Food Supply Chains Emanating from China. He addressed MIT research spanning over two years which was funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Observed was that imports of food shipments into the United States have dramatically expanded to include upwards of 80 percent of seafood, 70 percent of honey and other basic food commodities. The FDA sponsored Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law in 2011 was passed to prevent food safety problems rather than regulatory agencies having to merely react and respond to growing incidents. The act clearly shifted the responsibility and accountability for food safety with the industry, including validation of the food supply chain. MIT assembled a cross-departmental research team to address how does the structure of the food supply chain impact risk?  Because of the FDA sensitivities related to this research, we will refrain from sharing more of details. Suffice to note to our readers that the research identifies compelling risk drivers that include unmonitored stakeholders, overall dispersion of food supply chains, regulatory strength and the targeting of key strategic commodities that are common to many food products.

An industry focused presentation came from Joel LaFrance, Supply Chain Visibility Lead at General Mills. The day before the Crossroads conference, a group of CTL corporate members identified supply chain visibility as their most important and compelling challenge. That theme was addressed as LaFrance addressed the importance of defining supply chain visibility lexicon, as contrasted with transparency and traceability. He described the new influences impacting General Mills supply chains including unprecedented complexity and volatility as well as the convergence of physical and digital processes. The consumer goods producer started it supply chain visibility journey nearly 18 months deploying a series of use cases and initiatives directed at supporting line-of-business needs. Further shared were top four learnings that included realization that connected data is critical, that insuring end-to-end supply chain visibility changes that way work is performed, along with prioritizing end-to-end visibility needs as opposed to targeting specific functional needs.

This author had to cut-short his attendance for the full agenda, because of a previously scheduled client commitment. However, we did obtain a copy of CTL Executive Director Chris Caplice’s presentation: Transforming Professional education: An Update from the Front Line. Addressed was MIT’s ground breaking efforts in delivering an online ‘Micro-Master’s’ Program for Supply Chain Management that features open enrollment, online certification and no admissions criteria. While the program is characterized as not an MIT degree program, it does provide a faster path towards a degree. The curriculum will include courses such as Supply Chain Fundamentals, Supply Chain Analytics, Supply Chain Design and Technology. The online learning experience includes on-demand, ‘bite-sized’ video segments of 3-9 minutes coupled with quick reinforcing questions and extensive practice problems after each section. Current enrollment in this online program now exceeds 28,000 and includes student representation from 181 countries which is quite a testament to the global interest levels in acquiring supply chain management skills. This innovative program was described as helping organization’s to identify supply chain talent because MicroMasters provide a proxy for grit. It further helps to recognize and foster high-potential achievers by recognition.

This was another informative Crossroads conference one providing broader perspectives on the direction of supply chain management.

Bob Ferrari

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