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Global Logistics in Mining 2012 conference

Wow – just got back from the Global Logistics in Mining 2012 conference (London, UK). Fabulous conference, excellent people. Lots going on around the world. We had some interesting discussions about:

  • Projects all with unique and interesting challenges (e.g., in Africa, Central America, isolated areas in Russia)
  • Technology supporting logistics improvements (e.g., using RFID or automating on-site operations)
  • Challenges operating within developing countries (e.g., within Africa and Central America).

I had a blast and I met some great people. While there are many logistics challenges ahead in mining, the room was filled with some of the brightest minds I’ve met so I am confident all the challenges will be overcome, one way or another!

Thanks to the folk at Fleming Gulf for organizing this.

Dynamic supply management

“Dynamic supply management, ensuring continuous fit with business objectives, offers a significant advantage to firms and builds a strong foundation for sustainable success.”

– Lincoln C. Wood
Quote fromMining Procurement and Supply 2012 conference, Perth, Australia (June 12-13 2012)


This is a pretty incredible state – logistics is the heart of business here. It’s crucial whether we look at resources and mining or other commodities, such as what we have growing here in the wheat-belt. Here’s a simple shot showing some of the amazing infrastructure that is in place and which, during certain parts of the year, is exceptionally busy. We must have hit them on a slow day 🙂

Logistics in Western Australia

In a state renowned for the mining and resources boom, logistics is BIG BUSINESS. However, there are other businesses that are crucial to the well-being of the state that also require significant logistics infrastructure and support.

The entire south-west segment of the state profits from being in the ‘wheat-belt’. A wonderfully fertile part of the country – but when the wheat needs to be harvested and moved, this must occur FAST. To ensure that this can happen there is a range of expensive infrastructure in place. Passing through a nearby town, we caught the following few of photos of some of the permanent infrastructure. This is a big operation to get the wheat moving fast and furiously to the coast and then out into the world.

A future without supply chain workers?

Lately I’ve had quite a few chats with folk in the industry. Is there a future without supply chain workers? Would that be so bad?

The work itself is often repetitive and dangerous (think of all the heavy equipment and significant inertia). Getting people out of the ‘movement’ part of the supply chain might be quite a good idea. Accidents and deaths should decrease, leaving happier families.

Where are we at?

Ports – the containers themselves are regularly shaped and sized. The environment can be tightly controlled and planned. A great candidate for automation. 

Mines – certain activities are very repetitive and in tightly controlled environments. This includes the repetitive cycles for certain vehicles. Those in underground environments can be relatively easily designed to work without human intervention, moving through the tunnels.

Warehouses – quite a bit more difficult. Yes, things are repetitive, but the environments are less-tightly controlled, and the products themselves often vary in size, bulk, and fragility. Lots of automation can be used to aid humans working in this environment. Some firms manage to standardize much of the packaging. Yet, at present, there still seems to be a large role for employees in these environments.

Manufacturing – this depends on the nature of the products and workplaces. I’ve seen many facilities that are absolutely chaotic, where automation would fail and would never be considered. Some products are inherently difficult for robots to manage (think about flexible pips or tubing, flopping around), making the work suitable for human worker with a little training.

So – many materials handling jobs can be replaced with technology. Those jobs that involve irregular working environments or irregular products are less amenable to displacement. Thus, work involving a variety of external conditions (e.g., managing materials on construction sites sites) or a variety of product shapes and customer-facing roles (e.g., courier delivery) may be safe.

What sort of role should you be looking for in supply chain management? Where do you want to be in the future? I suggest that there are some types of jobs that you should be careful about as you may find – at some point in the future – that the job disappears out from under you!

Keeping up to speed with study

Exams are now around the corner (another busy semester, over!). Students are falling into the two camps: those that kept up with the readings and activities over the semester and those that are now cramming happily in an attempt to pass their final exams.

All materials are available at the start of the semester, complete with a list of chapters to read each week and the order in which materials will be covered. The smartest tactic, which minimizes overall work, is to read as you go, do exercises in important chapters, and sit tight for the exam. Students that are slower at reading can take speed-reading classes. A few hours improving reading techniques can pay significant dividends over the course of study.

Few exams have any extremely difficult materials in them that require significant further study or reading. In some cases, however, exams may require a student to extrapolate beyond the examples provided in the book, or the types of cases provided. If you really understand the concepts, this extrapolation isn’t difficult.

Simple strategy – keep up with readings. Continue to work through some problems. Don’t do all the problems in every chapter, but do a couple to make sure you understand key concepts. Most importantly – do not panic in the examination! Keep your cool, breathe in deeply, and try to chill a little. Use the reading time wisely and be ready to go when your examination period commences.

But that’s so much to write

Heard again. Twice today. (And it was the second or third time from one student!) J I’m sympathetic and I recall my own assignments and dissertations years ago. (Is there anything worse than staring at a blank screen and thinking to yourself “100,000 odd more words to go – time to start the PhD dissertation”???)

A few thousand words in an assignment can seem like quite a bit. A small dissertation or research project (equivalent in workload to one to four classes) can seem like a daunting task as you start. However, with a good structure and an effective plan, you soon find yourself wondering where you can cut things back or eliminate material.

Introducing structure and making things clear and easy for the reader often introduces significant ‘volume’ that is not anticipated. By the time you have dispensed with the niceties of academic writing it sometimes seems that there’s little space left for what you actually want to say. Thus, while it may seem like ‘a lot of work’ to put together a short conference paper, when you inspect a template, plan what you want to say and the order to say it in, filling in the blanks and coming up with a complete conference paper is quite easily accomplished. On a much larger scale, the same principles hold true for a dissertation, where there is even more ‘academic filler’ that helps the reader and conforms to the established orthodoxy of how the dissertation should be structured and written.

Writing a little bit each day also breaks a mammoth task into something quite achievable. Knocking out 500 words a day for 20 days gives you 10,000 words of content – quite a bit towards the completion of short dissertation. If you have a relatively detailed structure you can even fill in one of these segments each day with 500 words, and you’ll have a complete dissertation before you know it, assembled with a little writing each day.

Isn’t this all about the culture?

We were talking about ‘lean’ and some of the associated benefits. Yes, it was an aside but still quite related to what we were talking about in regards to the production process decisions that need to be made.

I don’t often get into the culture stuff in my operations management (OM) classes – I find that they are often challenging enough, particularly where I have students that haven’t been at university in a while. Sometimes, however, it seems unavoidable.

Why do some implementations of ‘lean’ fail? Do the Japanese have some cultural advantages in making this work? The organisational behaviour and organisational change fall beyond the scope of my OM class, yet I’m no stranger to the concepts (see some of my publications on my staff page).

Simply having a manager decide “Right, we are going to totally change the way we run our operations” is NOT going to have a good outcome. Switching from the way many of our operations have been structured, to transition to a lean environment, represents a significant shift. Sure, implementing one or two tools or techniques can be easily accomplished, but it’s like ‘bolting on’ these techniques to our existing philosophy. Probably, it’s not going to work, and may even be harmful. To really make a success out of lean we need to drill all the way down to our culture and philosophy, which we probably have never even considered so explicitly before.

Like much of what I talk about in OM, congruence and alignment will be necessary to derive the benefits, fully. Simple words; yet, congruence is fiendishly difficult to achieve in a real operating environment.

Can we change the culture? Yes.

Can we do this easily? Not that *I* know of.

Hiring policies, effective candidate screening, intensive meetings and workshops, pilot studies to demonstrate feasibility and benefits, and time, time, time ….  Changing the culture enough to implement lean is a challenging proposition. Even if you do succeed, a lean system is not going to be appropriate for every organisation in every situation. The key to success is matching the operations management approach with your business context.

Research: See the whole supply chain and mark efficiently

How did YOU learn about the complex, interconnected nature of decisions made in supply chains? We often don’t see the impact of a decision we make – the repercussions may be felt months later by some poor worker on the other side of the world. Stuck with the same problem, we’ve been working on improving our presentation and visualisation of supply chains to students. Our research team has, in the past, constructed several simulated components that we hope to be able to combine, with further information overlaid, in a series of structured lessons. In a nutshell – shrinking a supply chain down into a still relatively-realistically represented, simulated, supply chain. And then there’s no end to the ways that you could use this in university or vocational training.
Universities are pushed to improve their efficiency and effectiveness of operations (at least, we have been told so; our experience with burgeoning administration and bureaucracy makes us wonder about this!). Doing our bit – we’ve been working on evaluating different marking and feedback support systems. Hypothesis – using cool technology will help us to do the same job, faster! Well, that’s what we thought, that’s what I perceived during the project, but … what is the data showing us? I have a conference paper with the first set of data will be submitted tomorrow; other data that will help us evaluate is still being collected. (Thanks to Ashley for her help administering the survey.) In any case – this is why we do research, ’cause things aren’t always as they seem …. 🙂

Research update

We have several interesting research projects underway – in the next couple of days I’ll outline what these are.