Article written by John Backman for Rensselaer’s ISE Spring 2018 newsletter
Jennifer Pazour is finding ways to streamline supply chains in the new collaborative economy
Jennifer Pazour started early on her quest for optimal efficiency.
“I really enjoyed organizing my room as a kid,” said the ISE assistant professor. “I have just always liked efficiency.”
The lifelong fascination recently led to two of engineering’s most prestigious awards—and perhaps a better life for Uber drivers, Meals on Wheels volunteers, and others who inhabit on-demand supply chains.
Early this year, the National Science Foundation awarded Pazour a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant. More recently, Johnson & Johnson honored her with its Manufacturing Scholar Award, given as part of the WiSTEM2D Scholar Program (Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Manufacturing, and Design).
The research behind the accolades has to do with Pazour’s signature focus: the seismic shift from centralized to on-demand and collaborative distribution.
“Modern distribution systems need to fulfill a wide variety of requests quickly with little warning in small units to many dispersed locations at low costs,” she wrote in her research summaries. “This is fundamentally different than yesterday’s demand, which aggregated at fixed (store) locations. Thus, today’s supply chains are optimized for yesterday’s customers.”
In the face of this disconnect, Pazour’s team is rethinking supply chain design to meet the demands of modern distribution. That involves researching new ways to move supply chain networks from fixed and static to collaborative, dynamic and agile.
One aspect of this research involves underutilized resources and how organizations might obtain them. To understand it, consider cars and what they do – or don’t do – all day.
“The tings we own have extremely low utilization rates, spending the majority of their useful lives idle,” Pazour explained. “When you’re at a stoplight, count the empty seats in the vehicles around you. When you’re in a parking lot, think about the fact that most of the surrounding cars get an hour of use a day. Or consider the duplication of effort when both you and your neightbor make invividual grocery trips. These example all represent underutilized capacity, and with the right algorithms and models, companies could start accessing these underutilized resources.”
But there’s a challenge in the way. “We need to entice the owners of these resources to provide access,” she continued. “On the one hand, the centralized model doesn’t allow for decision making by the owners, so it dampens their participation. On the other, a fully decentralized system leads to myopic decision making: no one supplier has the whole picture of the marketplace, which results in reduced system performance because some requests receive multiple selections and others are left unfulfilled.”
The CAREER award-winning research aims to combine the two in what Pazour calls a hierarchical approach, which gives suppliers “recommendations” to help them make efficient decisions. She used Meals on Wheels volunteers as an example.
“Millennial Millie gets a notification on her phone asking if she’d like to deliver groceries to shut-in residents,” she recounted. “Millie clicks yes. Two requests appear. She chooses the one that fits with her plans that day. What the platform did—without control or knowledge of Millie’s plans—was to provide choices estimated from her past behavior. Before this example can become a reality, research is needed to discover new ways to provide choices and quantify the impact of those choices on suppliers and demand requests.”
Another part of the Johnson & Johnson and CAREER research dovetails with Pazour’s dedication to her profession. Working with Rensselaer’s Engineering Ambassadors program, she will mentor undergraduates to create active learning modules, inspired by her research, and use them with K-12 students.
“I want to gain more exposure for the field, and inspire more young people to get involved,” she said. “The world need more industrial and systems engineers. We are wired to think systematically about complex problems, which exist in all sectors of society. Yet too few incoming Rensselaer students even know what we do. That needs to change.”