If it’s January, it must be Cambridge

The future of supply chain was on display at MIT’s annual student night

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Every January, MIT brings together in Cambridge its graduate students in supply chain management from what are now six campuses world-wide. Near the end of the month, the students present their thesis projects one evening at a Research Expo and networking event.

If you’ve never attended, and don’t mind Boston in January, it’s a great event. You have the opportunity to rub elbows with colleagues, recruit talent for your organization and see what the future of supply chain management may look like, both from the students ready to make their way in our world and by the kinds of questions they have been asked to research and answer by sponsoring companies. Including some 200 students, Bruce Arntzen, executive director of the program, was expecting more than 600 attendees. And hey, this year at least, registration was free.

The one word descriptor I walked away with last night was diversity. That may not be a term we usually apply to supply chain management, but here’s what I had in mind.

For starts, there was the diversity of the companies sponsoring the students’ research thesis’s. They included retailers like CVS Health; CPG and personal health manufacturers like Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson; industrial manufacturers like General Electric and BASF; logistics and transportation providers such as CH Robinson and Coyote Logistics; industrial distributors such as MSC Industrial Supply; CHEP, the provider of pooled pallets and returnable plastic containers; and new economy entrants such as Uber Freight. While they have very different needs, they are all supply chain companies.

For another, there was the diversity of projects, which reflected both the cutting edge and the evergreen problems that challenge every supply chain organization. At one end of the spectrum, I met with Toufic Hirbli, whose project was an assessment of whether your business really needs a blockchain (his conclusion, by the way, was that we’re at very early stages, with challenges to overcome) and with Kirsten Burt and Nooree Ahuja, who were asked to do an assessment of the applicability of five emerging technologies for Kuehne + Nagel, the global 4PL. At the other end of the spectrum, was a project sponsored by a Greek grocer to assess the effectiveness of store-level automatic replenishment systems by Panagiotis Oikonomou and Pankaj Arya. 

Last, but perhaps most important, was the diversity of geography and cultures represented. Juan Carolos Coloma Lopez and I talked about a project on last mile delivery he worked on with two other South American students, representing Peru, Brazil and Argentina. Now, on the one hand, you would expect that in an event that brought together students from six global campuses to be international. But, some of the pairings were surprising. Burt and Ahuja were from North Carolina and India, by way of the UK, were studying in Luxembourg and doing work for a company headquartered in Germany. When I asked students if they were looking for jobs in the U.S., the most common response was something like, “Hey, I’ll work anywhere.”

Now, admittedly, I have a bias. For years, I wrote for DiversityInc magazine and Aviation Week – and commercial aviation is about as global an industry as I can think of. But as I was driving home, I couldn’t help thinking that the future of our industry is going to come from capturing the ideas and energy from the global students I met last night on the MIT campus, and at every supply chain campus I visit in the course of the year.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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