You've heard the supply-and-demand adage time is money.
In the defense world, lag time could cost lives, disrupt training and create other logistical headaches for military forces.
Researchers at The University of Alabama in Huntsville are wrapping up a three-and-a half-year study for the U.S. Army to integrate a more efficient system of managing literally tens of thousands of military parts and supplies.
The goal was to establish a suite of metrics that would aid in managing the supply chain in multiple ways, such as creating indicators that could help Army managers predict any shortfall in supplies.
"What they wanted us to think about is how they conduct business from a logistics and supply chain perspective," said Dr. David Berkowitz, associate dean and principal investigator at the Integrated Enterprise Lab in the UAH College of Business Administration.
The study was initiated on behalf of the Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM), and was escalated to the purview of the Army Materiel Command (AMC) midway through the project.
Researchers, including students and a team of other university faculty and staff, amassed data that studied the entire supply chain of reparable parts "from the factory to the foxhole." Their mission was to assess needed inventory, based on demand for each item in question and predictable wait times if parts needed to be shipped. Supply disruptions could be caused by breakdowns in the supply chain processes, or by unpredictable factors such as a massive power outage or a factory breakdown of a third-tier supplier.
"They needed us to show them how to look at their data and report it in a way that would give them a forewarning," Berkowitz said.
Whether it's helicopter blades for choppers in Afghanistan, guidance systems for weaponry, transmissions for heavy equipment or computer monitors for an Army field center, down time waiting for parts for a repair can be devastating.
Research literature said the goal of the supply chain analysis is to provide information to all levels of AMC supply chain management from senior leadership to item managers, enabling them all to more efficiently manage the Army's supply chain.
To do that, they devised a new suite of "end-to-end supply chain metrics" that integrated multiple data systems into a single supply chain model (dubbed a "dashboard") for analysis and reporting.
A bargain shopper at Best Buy won't really be inconvenienced that much if a desired item takes a couple of days extra because it is out of stock.
It's a different story for the Army, especially in dangerous or hostile settings.
To get a big picture view on parts delivery systems, members of the team visited a Ford Motor Co. factory in Michigan, a John Deere tractor manufacturer, an Army depot in Corpus Christi, Texas, and one of the Army's transmission suppliers. They developed a scorecard for suppliers and established a grading system to evaluate customer wait times.
The study looked at primarily three elements in the supply chain: performancefocusing primarily on customer wait times, quality and reliability, and efficiency with regard to allocation of assets.
Researchers evaluated ‘problem areas' that didn't meet assigned tolerances and calculated the impact on the inventory for problems like excessive wait times.
“You can never say with 100 percent certainty that it will work this way. All you can do is say these are the tolerances we set up, where it’s been violated, determine the root cause, and here is a workable solution to get it back on track,” Berkowitz said.
“It’s all about being able to manage. It’s all about being able to understand what those exceptions are going to be, and about putting a proactive plan in place to make your supply chain as efficient as possible.”
There were 22 students involved in the project, 11 of whom have gone on to jobs with the government or government contractors.
Other positive byproducts of the project include one master’s thesis; eight conference presentations; and a speaker series that featured 10 government speakers coming to the UAHuntsville campus.