Saturday, February 13, 2010

Innovation Forum on Operational Process Improvement for a Changing Manufacturing Supply Chain

The Innovation Forum on Operational Process Improvement in a Changing Manufacturing Supply Chain took place yesterday at the Isenberg School of Management. This forum was the first such forum (and I hope that it is not the last) at the Isenberg School, and was organized to support the Precision Manufacturing Regional Alliance Project (PMRAP).

The forum brought together faculty from the Operations Management group and Marketing at the Isenberg School and a faculty member from Regional Planning at UMass Amherst to brainstorm with presidents of several high precision manufacturers in the region, manufacturing directors, sales managers, and a foreman. The project manager of PMRAP, the engineer, and the Director of Cluster Development, as well as a PMRAP consultant, who served as the discussion facilitator, also took part. The Vice Chancellor of Research and Engagement at UMass Amherst also stayed for the entire forum as did a rep from the John Adams Innovation Institute.

The forum began with introductions and the industry representatives discussing:

1. who are their customers;

2. who are their competitors and what are the pressures now;

3. operational issues.

The faculty members then overviewed their relevant research, in light of what the industry representatives had identified as their major issues and concerns. The goal was to identify how research could help the industrial partners and how common areas of interest and expertise could create synergies.

I was one of only two females at the forum, which attracted about two dozen participants, the other being a president of a local manufacturing company, who graduated from UMass Amherst and whose daughter graduated from the Isenberg School!

The high precision manufacturing companies represented at the forum were a diverse group, based on size, number of competitors, etc. Their common themes were: high precision manufacturing, regional proximity, similar economic pressures, with all facing a new dynamic decision-making environment with a lot of uncertainty.

Possible research questions that arose were numerous and I truly enjoyed the free exchange of ideas amongst the faculty and industry reps, which highlighted such topics as lean manufacturing, collaborative networks, adaptive and agile supply chains, R&D portfolio optimization, the evolution and dynamics of innovation networks, relationship and trust management, identifying synergies among partnerships, the integration of social networks and supply chains, capacity planning, process optimization, decision-making under uncertainty and robust optimization, optimal vendor consolidation, and even branding the region as one with highly skilled workers, including machinists and manufacturers.

I had brought several of my recent books to the forum, including the Fragile Networks book, co-authored with my former student, Dr. Patrick Qiang, and my Supply Chain Network Economics book, written while I was a Science Fellow at Harvard University.

What also very much impressed me besides the communications and ideas that were exchanged was the clear excellence in the leaderships of the various companies that took part in the forum. I heard of companies being like families, of the importance of human resources in the supply chain (I completely concur), and of employees working as a team with employees acquiring additional skill sets, which enable them to become more productive and to create additional value to the company.

I enjoyed a newly learned acronym - IDIQ, which stands for indefinite demand, indefinite quantity, and that is the reality for some of the industries that these high precision manufacturers supply -- from aerospace to defense, for example. Researchers in supply chains enjoy challenges, and the forum yesterday certainly brought a fascinating spectrum of relevant topics for further discussion and for research!

Some background on the PMRAP initiative can be found in this press release that was issued by UMass Amherst. There has been further media coverage on this initiative, which is supported by a two year $650,000 National Science Foundation grant, in Business West, among other publications and media outlets.