April 2002 | Commentary | Supply Chain Technology

Supply Chain Planning in a Global Environment

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Last month's column examined LogicTools Inc.'s LogicChain and LogicNet supply chain applications. This month, we talk with the person behind those applications—David Simchi-Levi, LogicTools CEO and president. In addition to running LogicTools, Simchi-Levi is a professor of engineering systems at MIT and the author of two books, including the prize-winning Designing and Managing the Supply Chain (with Peter Kaminsky and Edith Simchi-Levi). Simchi-Levi recently sat down with Inbound Logistics to discuss issues critical to logistics IT and supply chain management.

The Evolution of Optimization

With the growth of the global economy, businesses are changing the way they perceive supply chain planning.

"In the last few years, the industry has developed a number of strategies to allow supply chain partners to replace sequential planning, or sequential optimization, with global optimization," says Simchi-Levi. "In sequential planning, each party optimizes its own profit with almost no regard to how its decisions impact other supply chain partners. By contrast, the objective of global optimization is to find what's best for the entire supply chain."

Reevaluating the Supply Chain

To facilitate this transition in thinking, companies are reevaluating ways they can use effective supply contracts, various types of strategic partnering, information sharing, and decision support systems.

"For example, revenue sharing contracts, which have been used in the movie video industry, allow the retailer and the studios that sell the movies to increase both service level to customers and profit for all parties," notes Simchi-Levi.

Technology—information systems and decision support systems in particular—provides a different approach.

"Indeed, a new breed of planning tools allows companies to develop a supply chain master plan using information from across the supply chain," says Simchi-Levi.

"A supply chain master plan identifies production quantities, distribution strategies, and storage requirements by efficiently allocating supply chain resources to minimize system-wide cost or maximize profit over multiple time periods. Many companies in the food, chemical, and 3PL industries use tools such as LogicChain to globally optimize their supply chains," he says.

"Strategic partnering is another way to achieve efficiencies across partners in the supply chain. The celebrated Vendor Managed Inventory (VMI) strategy, in which the supplier manages the retailer's inventory, allows suppliers and retailers to significantly improve supply chain performance," Simchi-Levi adds.

Actualized Real-Time Visibility?

The evolution of technology, and specifically visibility tools, has made the availability of actual real-time information within the many dimensions of the supply chain a reality. But there are still obstacles to hurdle.

"This is an ongoing process that depends on the availability of data to analyze the entire supply chain," says Simchi-Levi. "The data has become easier to access because of ERP's widespread adoption, and more recently the development and implementation of visibility tools.

"While gathering the data is certainly easier, organizing it in a way suitable for global optimization, and understanding the modeling and trade-offs, is still a challenge," he notes.

Accomplishing this in real time demands an even greater effort.

"While the ability to optimize large-scale supply chain models has improved significantly in the last few years, it is still difficult to do that for large realistic models, especially if you need to make decisions in real time," says Simchi-Levi. "This implies that techniques such as data aggregation and model decomposition are very important. The challenge is to decompose the models or aggregate data without reducing performance. This is possible, but it requires significant supply chain expertise."

The fallout after Sept. 11, and continued concern about safety and security in the movement of goods, present further considerations for reviewing a company's supply chain strategy.

"More and more companies understand the importance of being able to accurately calculate safety stock across their supply chain, taking into account service levels, uncertainty in demand, lead times, and capacities," says Simchi-Levi. "Again, this is not a simple task, but new tools let supply chain executives determine and position safety stock in their supply chain. The tools also allow supply chain executives to evaluate the impact of changes in safety stock on supply chain performance."

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