I’m happy to have a guest reviewer, and expert in industrial systems, provide his thoughts on a book that presents the supply chain of the present and future. For those who only read the introduction to see if the subsequent review is worth reading, I recommend anyone who deals with materials to maintain a facility read the review. Being able to understand material flows and to leverage AI for your campus inventory is becoming increasingly important. Leaving a lot of money tied up in an inventory that doesn’t turn is like a budget cut. Having no inventory available when needed leads to lower customer service. Therefore, understanding how materials move through the system as the potential to extend the budget and improve customer service.
Enjoy this guest review; if you would like to review a book you find interesting, please consider submitting it.
THE MAGIC CONVEYOR BELT: SUPPLY CHAINS, A.I., AND THE FUTURE OF WORK
Yossi Sheffi, Cambridge, MA: MIT CTL Media, 2023. 308 pages, hardcover, $25; softcover, $18.
Book review by C. Robert Kenley, email@example.com
In 2008, I made a solo cross-country bicycle trip from California to Indiana. The fourth day of the trip crossed the Mojave Desert on the historic Route 66 highway. Not a single vehicle passed me on the road, but multiple BNSF trains, each with hundreds of freight cars and half a dozen locomotives, accompanied me that day. Pedaling trance-like in the desert heat, I concocted some stories about the journey that the cargo was taking, but my stories fall far short of true story that Yoshi Sheffi tells in The Magic Conveyor Belt about the journey of a t-shirt from a factory in Bangladesh to retail store in Boston.
The book’s author, Dr. Yoshi Sheffi, is an expert in systems optimization, risk analysis, and supply chain management, which are deeply technical subjects, but this book is targeted to a much broader audience than just researchers in his field. This book will be useful for
- anyone who wants to learn more about supply chains;
- researchers and technologists who need to understand the larger context of the innovations that they are proposing for adoption;
- those who have responsibilities for improving their current supply chain operations in the face of increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity;
- organization executives who will need to adapt their supply chain operations in the face of increasing automation driven by artificial intelligence in ways that increase the value for all stakeholders, including employees, and also reduce costs.
Sheffi’s presentation very much adheres to a “systems thinking” philosophy that views supply chains as complex adaptive systems that touch all aspects of their operating environment, which includes political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal factors. He does not shy away from identifying the weaknesses in current supply chain systems and the threats that they pose to the well-being of humanity and the environment, yet being the consummate engineer, he maintains a positive outlook by identifying strengths to be leveraged and opportunities to be pursued that enhance our ability to “fulfill the needs and wants of humanity” via the operation of global supply chains.”
The book is divided into four parts that cover the basics of supply chains, trends affecting supply chains, the role of technology in supply chains, and creating the workforce of the future. Throughout the book, he provides many real-world examples, such as the story of t-shirt journey form Bangladesh to Boston, that are instructive and supported by quantitative information and references.
In covering the basics of supply chains, he summarizes the technical jargon and definitions used in the supply chain field using in lay terms. He also explains the economic theories of how international trade can potentially provide mutually beneficial outcomes when fulfilling the needs and wants of humanity via the operation of global supply chains.
His discussion of trends affecting supply chains covers the increased complexity of supply chains that deliver more products at a faster rate at lower cost while facing social demands to increase environmental sustainability, reducing economic disparity, and maintaining service quality in the face of disruptions driven by volatile and uncertain political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal factors.
The book’s section on the role of technology, titled “Vital Link in the Chain: Humans,” is principally focused on the impact of artificial intelligence, robotics, and automation. Many examples of implementation of these advanced advantages are provided in this section, and the potential positive and negative impacts on supply chain operations and the workforce is presented in a clear-eyed and straightforward way. The author wraps up the discussion on the role of technology with two chapters that support his thesis that humans will still be the vital link the supply chain even after the insertion of new technologies.
The first chapter describes how it is that humans can collaborate with robots, known as cobots, and the second chapter makes a s strong argument that the introduction of new technologies will not eliminate the need for humans. Sheffi writes, ”Possibly the main drawback of automated systems is that they do not understand context. Context is the environment, setting, and circumstances in which something exists or happens. It is the ‘bigger picture’ that an automated system may not be able to take into account when taking action, because it may not be aware of the moral code, reasonable goals, or common sense that may be obvious to humans.”
The final part of the book looks at three trends, 1) the increasing level of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of supply chains and economies; 2) significant geographic changes due to migration driven by climate change and conflict and demographic changes driven by aging populations; and 3) a growing array of information technologies that can be deployed to cope with the other two trends. He sees opportunities to create positive outcomes to cope with these trends by deploying more advanced tools for people and teams; by educating the population with social, decision-making, and sense-making skills that are different from the current focus on skills needed to complete repetitive tasks that can be automated; and committing to training and mentoring on entry-level; and by establishing new career ladders that offer opportunities for advancement that do not require promotion to a traditional mid-level manager role that is justified by a span-of-control headcount.
He concludes with a description of new educational approaches that already are being deployed, such as high-quality online courses that can be scaled to large populations and that use stackable modules that can satisfy the need for just-in-time training as well as lead to certificates and formal degrees.
Those interested in the acquisition and management of materials will find The Magic Conveyor Belt to be a beneficial reference and informative for the measurement of tasks, time, costs, processes, and systems.
Robert Kenley is professor of practice in industrial engineering at Purdue University; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ted Weidner is professor of engineering practice at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, and consults on facilities management issues primarily for educational organizations. He can be reached at email@example.com. If you would like to write a book review, please contact Ted directly.