SCM Blasts Off into Space

By Jacqueline Emigh  |  Posted 05-25-2005
With a recent $3.8 million NASA award to MIT for research on "interplanetary supply chain architectures," SCM is soaring to new heights of visibility.

But what exactly is an "interplanetary supply chain," and how does it relate to enterprise supply chains right here on Earth?

As defined by MIT professors Olivier de Weck and David Simchi-Levi, lead researchers on the project, the term essentially refers to the transfer of goods from "terrestrial suppliers" to space shuttle launch sites, and from these launch sites to shuttles, space stations, the moon, and even to Mars.

Like ordinary Earth-bound supply chains, the interplanetary type incorporates elements ranging from inventory management to warehouse management and logistics.

Yet the need for effective SCM—and the difficulties posed by getting supplies into and around in outer space—are truly out of this world, de Weck said, during an interview with CIOInsight.com.

What's at stake: financial efficiencies, as well as potential safeguarding of human life by preventing accidents in space.

Still, the two professors say they see analogies between the interplanetary supply chain and certain sorts of terrestrial supply chains.

Working with partners that include the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Payload Systems Inc., and United Space Laboratories, they will use lessons already learned here on Earth to help build a framework for analyzing and planning interplanetary SCM (supply chain management).

What sets the interplanetary supply chain apart from most of its Earthly counterparts?

"For one thing, most terrestrial SCM systems make the assumption that you can ship whenever you want," de Weck told CIOInsight.com.

But in interplanetary logistics, in contrast, planners often need to heed the relative alignments of the Earth and other planetary bodies.

"If you ignore these aspects, you're only fooling yourself," de Weck said.

"For instance, there is only a 30-day window—taking place once every two-and-one-seventh years—when you can launch [space] missions to Mars."

Interplanetary warehouse management poses other types of problems.

Many commercial tools are readily available for designing and optimizing both the "ingoing" supply chain, which typically deals with the flow of parts and other goods into the factory, and the "outgoing" supply chain, which conversely, revolves around the flow from the factory out to warehouses and retail outlets.

"In our project, we're dealing only with the 'outgoing' supply chain. But we are going to have to build our own tools. [Commercial] software for the outgoing supply chain assumes that the routes and connections to the warehouses will always be available—and that's clearly not true in outer space," de Weck said.

"Also, commercial software usually assumes that the cost of shipment will be constant, although some [products] do take into account variations in oil prices, for instance."

So what are the main parallels with supply chains in the Earth-bound enterprise? "We're not looking at companies like Wal-Mart stores, which sell thousands of items," the professor said.

Rather, the researchers will cull "lessons learned" from two other types of supply chains, drawing from studies Simchi-Levi has already performed in private industry.

"One analogy has to do with equipment [involving] high capital investment. For example, Cray Inc. makes high performance computers, and there are only a few hundred of these worldwide," de Weck said.

Just as with a space vehicle, when a high performance computer fails, the cost can be enormous.

"And you have to respond very quickly with replacements of critical parts," he said.

Another Earthly analogy revolves around supply chains with sites in remote locations.

"If you're trying to ship goods to a remote oil rig in Antarctica, for example, you have a limited capability. You can only really get in there between June and August."

As part of the project, the team will be sending graduate students to the Haughton-Mars Project base in the high Canadian Arctic, to experiment with RFID-enabled inventory management.

"NASA has not been using RFID," de Weck said. "Instead, astronauts have spent a lot of their time [in space] applying bar codes and performing inventories with handheld scanners—when what they're really supposed to be doing is productive science," according to de Weck.

Throughout the two-year study, considerable work will go into analyzing supply chain business processes, too.

"One question we'll be looking at is 'pre-positioning.' If you're going into a remote location, is it better to take everything with you that you think you'll need, or to be in 'reactive mode,' waiting to see what you'll need and then having it shipped later? I think we'll get some very interesting simulations and results," the MIT space scientist told CIO Insight.com.

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