CELDi faculty, student teams partner with industry for solutions to challenges in logistics, distribution
An average consumer probably doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how, say, the variables that go into painting the stripes on the roads they drive on every day, the efficiency with which a favorite beer gets from the brewery to suppliers, or the logistics of bringing all the parts together needed to build the airplane that will take them on their next vacation.
Fortunately, there’s a group of University of Missouri faculty and student researchers who are in the business of solving those logistical problems while giving the students practical, real-world experience.
MU is one of five current academic partners in the Center for Excellence in Logistics and Distribution, or CELDi, a National Science Foundation Industry/University Cooperative Research Center. The organization was founded in 2002 by charter academic partner, the University of Arkansas, with the stated goal of enabling “member organizations to achieve logistics and distribution excellence by delivering meaningful, innovative and implementable solutions that provide a return on investment.” CELDi pairs academic partners with member companies, who pay an annual membership fee to cover the cost of a company-selected project requiring an innovative solution in the areas of logistics systems and design, material flow design, supply chain modeling and intelligent systems.
Jim Noble, professor of industrial and manufacturing systems engineering and MU’s CELDi site director, said MU’s affiliation with the center began in 2006. The university became a full academic partner the following year.
“You submit a planning grant to the National Science Foundation, and you have a year to put together your team — both your industry partners and academic researchers,” Noble said. “Our initial industry members were Leggett & Platt, Hallmark and Ameren.”
Currently, the Mizzou CELDi site is working on projects with the Boeing Co., Bayer CropScience, Anheuser-Busch, UMB Financial, Helmerich & Payne and the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT). The companies benefit from the relationship with CELDi universities in a variety of different ways. First and foremost among them is their partnership with faculty and student researchers to solve their particular logistics issue, through novel applied research. For example, MU CELDi currently is working with MoDOT to develop a tool for road striping scheduling that optimizes efficiency and cost while adjusting for different variables, such as the weather.
“We’re providing the analysis tools for them to give them analytical support to address logistics issues,” Noble said. “We are capable of addressing a whole wide range of problems.”
Bill Abernathy is the head of North American product supply logistics excellence for Bayer CropScience. His company currently is working with CELDi on a project evaluating material flow from external, third-party warehouses into Bayer sites. The company has the raw data for the material flows at their plants and their warehouses, but what they don’t have are the transport numbers, amount of backhauling and similar data for the material flow going on between their warehouses and the ones operated by a third-party company.
“CELDi works closely with the warehouse and transportation folks and actually generates the logistics data,” Abernathy said.
“Sometimes you just need a fresh set of eyes and wide range of experience to assess how to make an operation better. It gives a guy like me — I’ve been with the company 38 years — it gives me a completely different viewpoint on some things I kind of take for granted, to be honest,” Abernathy said. “The CELDi team is good at generating new insights on how to improve a situation.”
That team includes a bulk of MU’s IMSE faculty, taking leadership roles on different projects depending on the focus. In addition to Noble, fellow IMSE faculty members Alec Chang, Wooseung Jang, Jung Hyup Kim, Cerry Klein, Ronald McGarvey and civil engineering associate professor Tim Matisziw are involved. Noble said the organization partners with other faculty members across campus for projects that would either supplement research projects or that could benefit from their particular expertise.
“I have a list of about 20 faculty from across campus with an interest in logistics, and when needs arise, we try to put together teams. As we [partner with] more companies, we’re able to do more of that,” Noble said.
Working with talented students also allows member companies prime recruiting opportunities. For all the benefits realized by researchers and member companies, the biggest beneficiaries might be student researchers. Noble said the selection process is very competitive to be part of the group comprised of undergraduates, grad students and doctoral candidates, with assigned responsibilities based on experience.
“It gives them the exposure to the companies,” Noble said. “It’s great networking. The core of the CELDi mission is developing students for the workforce.”
The students get the opportunity to gain experience working on the same kind of projects they’ll be working on upon entering the workforce. And, while working with these companies, they get the chance to network and, in a sense, audition for potential employers. Students also attend the annual national CELDi research symposium, increasing their networking opportunities and providing a chance to present research and posters in front of a wide array of peers and industry professionals.
“Every team we have has graduate and undergraduate students,” Noble said. “One or two graduate students, one or two undergrads on every team. So when we go to conferences, MU will have about 20 people go, and we’ll empty out the department.”
For some students, such as IMSE senior Jason Robke, the audition turns into a job offer. Robke joined the team at Boeing after his graduation in May after heavy involvement with CELDi projects with Boeing and internships with the company.
“It’s essentially a nine-month interview. Instead of us being a name on a resume they saw online, they can put a face to a name,” Robke said. “They have an idea of how we work.”
For others, such as doctoral candidate Phichet Wutthisirisart, the research done working for CELDi provided the impetus for both his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation. Wutthisirisart’s work on the Bayer CropScience project eventually provided the basis for his Ph.D. research. It provided him a real problem context, complete with difficult real world constraints and modeling issues.
CELDi provided an open door for Wutthisirisart, whose involvement with CELDi allowed him to earn real-world experience.
“Because I’m an international student, our choices are limited,” he said. “For me, who graduated from here with a computer science degree and decided to pursue a master’s degree in industrial engineering in the U.S., CELDi projects provide me channels to apply and combine both IE and computer science knowledge I learned in school to solve real industrial problems.”
The educational benefit to working with CELDi is complimented by the experiential learning situations the research provides. You can learn a lot sitting in a classroom, but even with the best and brightest faculty, there’s nothing quite like learning by doing.
“CELDi singlehandedly jumpstarted my career,” Robke said. “We’re extremely lucky to have this opportunity to interact directly with companies.”