Upcoming conference puts supply chain management in broad context
Host Yossi Sheffi thinks supply chains change, and are changed by, the world.
Chuck Leddy, MIT News correspondent

When asked if supply chain management (SCM) is simply moving stuff around quickly and cheaply, Yossi Sheffi, the Elisha Gray II Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT, smiles and poses his own question: “Are you crazy? It’s life. Everything you buy depends upon it.” Supply chains also create millions of jobs globally and “at salaries about equal to manufacturing jobs,” says Sheffi, director of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics (MIT CTL). And supply chains are relied upon to save lives during natural disasters.

“Look at Haiti,” Sheffi says, speaking of the devastating 2010 earthquake. “The whole world was willing to contribute aid, but you had one small airport that could handle one plane at a time. How do you manage getting the right stuff to the people who need it most? How do you make an impact and sustain it?” It’s maddeningly complex, he says, not just in terms of technology but in coordinating decision-making. “That’s what humanitarian logistics is all about: communicating, coordinating, optimizing, and much more.”

Sheffi emphasizes that the possibility of disruption to global supply chains is ever-present, as is the challenge of making supply chains resilient enough to recover from disruption. “How do you prepare a continuously changing, worldwide system to be continuously robust in the face of change? Risks are constantly growing because of climate change and political unrest and more,” he says. “Supply chains are impacted all the time and the challenges are new all the time. That’s what makes SCM so exciting from a research perspective, because so many different things affect it.”

On March 25, MIT CTL will host the 10th annual Crossroads conference, which gathers global supply chain professionals and some of MIT’s leading faculty for what Sheffi calls “a showcase” of a broad range of research that bears on SCM. “This year, Crossroads brings news from the MIT laboratories to our attendees,” Sheffi explains, “allowing them to think about and discuss how developments from the lab will impact SCM.” The disciplines showcased at Crossroads 2014, Sheffi says, range from robotics to MOOCs [massive open online courses] to manufacturing and “big data.”

That breadth is deliberate. “We hear a lot from companies about the shortage of SCM talent,” Sheffi says, “and MOOCs can be one way to train more people. And in terms of manufacturing, as more of it moves back to the U.S., we need to rethink investments — where to put warehouses and rail systems.” As for big data, Sheffi notes that “supply chains create a tremendous amount of data, and new tools allow us to better analyze what people are buying, when they’re buying, etc., and then use all this data to make fast changes according to consumer behavior.” The conference is meant to give SCM professionals an improved understanding of the big picture. Read more.

Interested in Supply Chain Management but not able to make the conference?  Keep an eye out for more information here on Open Matters and on the edX site about the Supply Chain Management XSeries (scroll down on this page), a series of MOOCs on SCM, which kicks off this fall.  It’s being developed by MIT CTL.