Supply chains in the commercial and consumer sector have long drawn on the experience and lessons derived from military logistics. That's never been truer than with recent conflicts in the Middle East. The challenge of provisioning remote outposts of soldiers and supplies in that region of the world have yielded some creative solutions that later can be transferred to private business. They can also be of value in coping with natural disasters, in which key supply lines are often cut for extended periods of time. In this interview, conducted at the annual conference of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, Supply Chain Visions' Steve Geary discusses how both the military and business worlds are functioning in today’s world of "extreme supply chains."
Q: You've done a fair amount of work in Afghanistan. Can you talk about some of the "extreme" supply-chain examples that you've seen there?
A: Geary: Afghanistan is an extreme environment. Aside from it’s being a landlocked country, which brings with it the typical supply-chain challenges, you’re dealing with a country that has lived in strife for three decades. So that leads to all sorts of different and unique challenges.
Think about a bunch of Marines at a small hilltop observation post. They need to be fed. They need ammunition, supplies, water. But it’s just about impossible to drive a truck down the road and up the side of the mountain to get it to them. So the military has looked that challenge in the eye, and deployed unmanned delivery drones. During this past year, there was all that hullabaloo about Amazon and the notion of commercial delivery drones, but the Marines have been using them for close to three years now. The K-MAX unmanned drone can deliver up to 4,500 pounds from as far as 250 miles away, without a pilot.
Q: What does it look like? It’s got to be significantly larger than Amazon’s consumer drones.
A: Geary: It absolutely is. Lockheed Martin and Kaman Aerospace didn’t have time to build something from scratch. So they took an FAA-certified commercial helicopter used in logging operations, and retrofitted it with remote controls. It’s a full commercial helicopter and can be flown with a pilot. They just choose not to.
Q: Have they been safe up to this point?
A: Geary: They haven’t lost any of them. They’ve flown something like 1,900 missions, and all have returned to base. None has even been hit. It happens to be a bit quieter than the typical helicopter; they fly the missions at night, and they don’t have to worry about flying with lights. They fly, they get there, they get out, they go home.
Now they’re starting to explore all sorts of applications, in more typical commercial environments, that may have extreme requirements. If you think about fighting forest fires, why put a pilot in the helicopter? You can use a drone to fly back and forth from the lake to refill. They even have a version that has directed water. They’re also using drones to resupply oil and gas drilling sites in the Arctic, where there are no roads. It’s a classic example of the bleeding out of innovation and creativity that takes place in one environment, and starts to have application elsewhere. It’s very interesting.
Q: The military, of course, has often been at the forefront of logistics planning and technology – the very word “logistics” is of military origin.
A: Geary: Absolutely. I’ve been working with these military applications since the mid-2000s. We worked extensively in Iraq as well, and we applied some classic supply-chain techniques there. It’s just a matter of taking the disciplines, applying them in a different environment and understanding how they fit.
Q: In many cases, battles can be won or lost on the strength of supply chains.
A: Geary: Right. When you start understanding the underlying supply-chain structure, and what’s required to take care of the force, you start uncovering other opportunities within the supply chain. For instance, if you need paint, you might decide to source locally, instead of all the way from the United States. That has many benefits. You get people off the road, so they’re no longer in danger. You’re buying locally, and making friends with the locals. One of the big goals in post-conflict environments is driving economic development. Classic supply-chain and logistics approaches, in collaboration with the military, often can be a great facilitator of that sort of situation.
Q: Sticking with Afghanistan for a moment, you’ve made some interesting observations about its carpet industry.
A: Geary: Afghanistan is the heart of the hand-woven carpet industry for the world – they’ve been making carpets for over 1,000 years. But the industry today is well down from its peak. Add to that the economic reversals of the late 2000s – hand-woven carpets are beautiful, but they’re a luxury good. Suddenly, you have folks who are in trouble in Afghanistan – they can’t eat.
We were asked to come in and take a look at the industry. Our expectation was that we would see conflict issues across the supply chain, retarding growth or even diminishing sales. In fact what we found was just fundamental supply-chain breakdowns. They were driven by the environment, but if you viewed it as a supply-chain problem, even though it was distressed and there were all sorts of security concerns and import-export issues to deal with, at the lowest level it was just a matter of drawing your supply-chain map – understanding where the breakdowns are taking place, and figuring out how to restore its connection to the world.
Q: Was the carpet industry sourcing locally, or did it have to go far afield in order to get the raw materials?
A: Geary: The materials often are imported, depending upon what you’re looking for – Belgian wool, Egyptian cotton. Typically, though, the wool is closer. The big challenge in the supply chain was not on the sourcing side – it was actually connecting with markets.
Q: What lessons can we derive from these examples of extreme supply chains in Afghanistan, in applying them to the United States?
A: Geary: When you look around the United States, many of those sorts of situations occur here as well. Think about post-Hurricane Sandy, or the tornadoes in Oklahoma, where you suddenly had severely disrupted supply chains. There were small businesses in trouble, because the networks that they once connected to were no longer there. Whether their customers or wholesalers were gone, they were encountering great difficulties. You can apply the same techniques: map the supply chain, understand where the disruptions are, and fix them. We know how to do that as supply-chain professionals, and we can do it in the wake of a disaster. It’s always the fundamentals – framing the problem, understanding the root causes, and applying good supply-chain management techniques.
Q: And being prepared for the unexpected, too. That’s a core aspect of material planning, right?
A: Geary: We call it looking over the horizon. Often we push that sort of long-term planning aside in our day-to-day lives in the commercial world, because there’s always something urgent that needs to be done.
One of the things that the military is very good at is scenario analysis – what might the future look like, and what do we do? We look at what’s going on in the Middle East, even the most recent headlines, where attacks have commenced in Syria. We see participation from Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia. And, of course, the United States as the backbone of that. One of the reasons why is that we have access all over the Middle East. We’ve done our scenario planning, and we have a footprint. We have availability of airfields in Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan. I don’t know which of those capabilities is being used, but I guarantee you that some of them are. That’s all the result of the over-the-horizon planning: being nimble, being flexible, and being prepared not just for the expected – anybody can do that – but for the unexpected.
Q: It’s a good argument for hiring veterans with logistics experience.
A: Geary: Absolutely. Combat logisticians have a tremendous amount of skills to bring. They are team players, they are problem solvers and they have can-do attitudes. Their whole focus is on the mission. Any opportunity that you have to bring in a veteran, you will not be disappointed.
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