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Quinlan School of Business

Delivery guy

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Professor Michael Hewitt wins National Science Foundation grant to research how to deliver goods faster and cheaper.

August 2014

When Quinlan professors deliver, they deliver—and Michael Hewitt knows how to do that better than just about anyone else.

As part of a $350,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Hewitt, an assistant professor of supply chain management at Quinlan, is leading new research to help companies decrease shipping times in order to increase profits.

The goal of Hewitt’s multilevel project, dubbed Efficient Algorithms for Continuous Time Service Network Design Models That Accurately Estimate Consolidation Opportunities in Time, is actually quite simple: get customers what they want faster and cheaper. 

To illustrate, imagine you just ordered a Valentine’s gift for your loved one online. The UPS tracker tells you your item is on its way from Atlanta to Chicago. But while the item may be special to you, it hardly makes sense for a trucking company to deliver that order all by itself.

So, to maximize profits, the trucking company will load as many items as possible, from as many vendors as possible, to as many customers as possible, into one tidy shipment—say, customized candy hearts for you and a fancy new cat groomer for your neighbor.

Coordinating such shipments used to be relatively easy: If your saccharine sentiments (produced in a warehouse in Orlando) arrived in Atlanta before your neighbor’s feline fluffer (manufactured in Chattanooga), the trucking company would just wait a bit before Chicago departure. Today, however, people expect their precious items delivered ASAP—especially if February 14 is tomorrow.

“With the growth in customer demands for rapid order fulfillment, and the advent of same-day delivery, this problem of coordinating routes in time is critical for trucking companies to succeed,” Hewitt says.

Trucking companies, therefore, have to be more sophisticated in their efforts by looking for redundancies, such as an overlap in routes.

With that objective, Hewitt is working on new techniques and technology (in the form of a software engine) that will enable trucking companies to coordinate routes in both space and time, speeding up shipping while lowering costs.

“We are working closely with a large trucking company that has a nationwide presence to ensure that the technology is grounded in operational realities,” Hewitt says.

But it doesn’t stop there. Trucking companies also play a vital role in the supply chains that support retail sales. High-velocity, reliable supply chains, bolstered by Hewitt’s technology, will allow manufacturers and distributors to hold less inventory and respond more rapidly to market shifts. The reduction in inventory, and thus inventory costs, means greater savings for you, the consumer.

Mother Nature also gets a break, as Hewitt’s technology will help lower carbon emissions.

Smooth sailing, right? Not so much, says the logistics mastermind behind the whole project. There are likely to be a few bumps along the way.

“I once heard these kinds of problems described as being like Sudoku,” Hewitt says. “The decisions are interconnected, and you can't tell whether a decision is correct without continuing on the path it creates. Now imagine playing a Sudoku puzzle where the numbers that are prefilled in change over time. That's what the problem we want to solve is like.”

Godspeed!

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