Published 07/06/11

Problem Solvers: Finding Supply Chain Management Solutions

July 2011

Supply chain management involves coordinating and improving the flow and transformation of goods, services, and information within companies and around the world. In the modern economy, the ability to manage complex global supply chains is critical to success.

Beer suppliers in England learned this lesson when a supply chain problem was impeding their competitiveness—kegs were disappearing. Suppliers would provide pubs across the United Kingdom with aluminum barrels filled with ales and porters. But once empty, the kegs were nowhere to be found. It turns out that large pubs, which received a discounted rate on bulk purchases of keg beer, were selling their barrels to small pubs, which allowed them to avoid paying a premium for smaller orders. The big pubs were making money; small pubs were saving money. The beer distributors were left entirely in the dark.

“Not a lot of schools are doing what Bryant is doing. We’ve created a niche in teaching applied supply chain management.” Christopher Roethlein

To solve the mystery, a small, thin tag was attached to each of the distributed barrels. Called radio-frequency identification (RFID), the technology helped distributors track the kegs and discover a “gray” supply chain. Today, using RFID, the spirits industry can control market distribution and keep track of its products.

The case of the missing kegs is just one example of the successful application of RFID technology, says John Visich, Ph.D., an associate professor of management at Bryant. The healthcare industry is using the technology to track and locate medical equipment. Food distributors use RFID to monitor air temperature to ensure food safety and quality. Big box retailers, like WalMart, use the technology to track inventory in order to avoid costly out-of-stocks.

Empirical evidence for RFID

Anecdotally RFID has had a reputation as a technology that failed to live up to its expectations, and collecting data on actual technology deployment has been difficult. Practitioners within the global supply chain industry, keen to retain a competitive advantage, are often tight lipped about their strategies.

Visich and Suhong Li, Ph.D., an associate professor of computer information systems at Bryant, were determined to discover the real story about RFID. In 2009 they published one of the first research studies to find that, in fact, RFID delivers a strong return on investment in several key areas of supply chain performance. Basheer M. Khumawala of the University of Houston and Pedro Reyes of Baylor University also contributed to the study.

The research was especially useful for organizations proposing to introduce RFID technology into the supply chain, says Visich: "For managers, the empirical evidence presented can help identify implementation areas where RFID can have the greatest impact. The data can be used to build the business case for RFID."

Faculty-student engagement

Visich’s study has prompted several collaborations with students in the areas of global supply chain management, operations management, and RFID. Danielle Godon ’07 worked on her Honors Program thesis with Visich and developed a survey to gauge RFID implementation challenges and benefits. A resulting paper was published in Management Research Review last year. Through a directed study this summer, Visich and a Bryant MBA student are crafting specific strategies to develop a global supply chain strategy for the student’s company.

“Relationships start in class, but getting to know students, and what they want to learn, can lead to research and direct applications within their current businesses or in the future,” Visich says. “We really want the material we are teaching to be directly career-related.”

A niche in applied supply chain management

Visich’s colleague in the Department of Management at Bryant, Christopher Roethlein, Ph.D., is also a believer in integrating business practicum and theory. “When students graduate, we want to make sure that they have a degree and business experience,” he says.

Roethlein says that in the supply chain management sector, job growth is at 20 percent, “While the economy was in decline, SCM jobs grew quickly.” He works to put Bryant students in contact with top businesses while they are undergraduates so they are well prepared to secure the best positions in the market after graduation.

“My students have worked with companies like Bose, Hasbro, Honeywell, Polytop, and Raytheon, and have given valuable advice on how to increase efficiency, profits, and workplace communication,” Roethlein says. A group of his graduate students also completed a collaborative project with Rhode Island-based Narragansett Brewing Company, and provided the company with a plan to launch a new brewery. The company is now shopping the plan to investors.  

“Not a lot of schools are doing what Bryant is doing,” Roethlein says, who receives unsolicited requests from business looking for students to tackle consulting projects. “We’ve created a niche in teaching applied supply chain management.”