Industry logistics considerations-supply and demand issues that impact company success in every area from product cost to customer service and satisfaction-have become an especially competitive field in today’s burgeoning global economy.
As an associate professor and researcher in the University of Missouri’s Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Department, Jim Noble is energetically enthusiastic about addressing the array of challenges posed within the logistics systems of companies. Throughout his academic career as a professional engineer, his focus has been on industrial applied research-to find solutions to company-unique problems by optimizing systems from an integrated perspective. He points out that logistics improvement potential can represent millions of dollars to businesses.
Unfortunately, companies do not always have the expertise or personnel to address logistics dilemmas and sometimes may not have the financial resources to outsource the work. Enter an innovative program by the National Science Foundation designed to create partnerships between industry and universities through cooperative research programs, or centers- I/UCRC.
In 2002 researchers at the University of Arkansas, University of Oklahoma, State University and University of Louisville took advantage of the I/UCRC initiative and established The Center for Engineering Logistics and Distribution-CELDi. By 2006 the number of academic partners had grown to nine, and Noble, believing that the University of Missouri has what it takes-established academic research capability and strong industry support-applied for a planning grant from the NSF to become a CELDi academic partner.
Academic partners are required to secure membership of at least three companies. Annual full memberships for recruited companies are $50,000 and entitle member companies to a yearlong company-specific logistics research project conducted by their academic partner’s Center. Industry projects fall under the broad categories of logistics systems analysis and design, supply chain modeling, material flow design and improvement, and intelligent systems.
Additionally, these companies become members of CELDi’s Industrial Advisory Board and gain access to all research reports from other member organizations. As members, they also receive CELDi work products, such as software, and have the opportunity to interact with other member companies and researchers. And they have access to the best-prepared logistics students, as undergraduate research is a key component within the program.
In June 2007, Noble recruited Leggett & Platt, a Fortune 500 diversified manufacturer whose original product was a bedspring the company patented in 1885. Since then, the company has grown to offer five diverse product segments. “Our truck fleet is the 43rd largest in the country among private carriers,” said Jim Hess, vice-president of Operations Services.
“We have some challenges that are important to us as a business because addressing them will make us more competitive,” said Hess. “One particular project of interest has to do with the mode we use for shipping.”
Hess explained that often a shipment represents less than a full truckload of products, which can be inefficient and expensive. He is looking to MU-CELDi to assess the problem and advise the company on how they can address it.
Wooseung Jang, an associate professor in Mizzou Engineering’s Industrial Engineering Department is the lead investigator for the research, assisted by Sean Carr, a graduate student in the department. In addition to helping with the research, Carr is responsible for providing Leggett & Platt’s logistics group with regular updates on progress, gaining real world experience that will boost his future career in industrial engineering.
CELDi holds a semi-annual conference each fall and spring for all academic partners and the industrial members they represent. The group meets for a day and shares a summary of their projects and solutions. The combined board votes on which completed member projects should be further developed for the benefit of the overall group. Pooled funds are then used to further develop generalized work products, such as software, for the top projects that are shared with CELDi members.
Hess noted that a representative of a CELDi member company from South Carolina who attended the conference held in Atlanta last fall was researching solutions to a project similar to that of Leggett & Platt’s. He appreciated the opportunity to discuss their shared challenges with him. “I am pleased that we joined,” said Hess.
Recently Noble has recruited Hallmark and AmerenUE to become company members in CELDi, giving Mizzou Engineering full academic partnership with Noble as MU’s Center director.
“These are the sorts of projects we have always been doing at MU,” said Noble of the modeling, analysis, and intelligent systems research CELDi is conducting for their member companies. “We’ve always had the ability to address unique logistics infrastructure and infrastructure operational components, but the national affiliation brings added synergy to it with more involvement and a lot more resources.”