Supply chain management is important to disaster relief


Not-for-profit and government organizations often struggle with having adequate and the right resources to serve people affected by disasters.

Chris Zobel, associate professor of business information technology in the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech, is studying the resilience of these organizations’ supply chains for disaster relief and readiness.

In business, a supply chain is the series of processes for getting goods to customers, from order placement to delivery. In disaster relief efforts, supply chain management is frequently used when goods have to be procured, managed, and moved to those who need them.

Humanitarian supply chain management, he said, is fraught with uncertainty and time and resource constraints. “We often don’t know when a disaster will occur, the extent of the damage, what resources — roads, hospitals, equipment, and personnel — are immediately following the event, or how long it will take for resources to arrive.”

Zobel is working on developing new approaches for modeling disaster resilience that will enable decision makers to gain a better understanding of the tradeoffs inherent in managing supply chain operations during a disaster. He is particularly interested in looking at different ways to visualize supply chain resilience, given its multi-dimensional nature.

Supply chain researchers and managers, he said, need to bear in mind that disaster response and recovery operations involve organizational, social, and environmental dimensions that can impact the decision-making process. “Analytic techniques can’t be applied in a vacuum — there are more than technical issues at play when you are trying to improve the ability of an organization to help mitigate against or recover from a disaster.”

The best technological solution may be constrained by other factors that may include bureaucratic roadblocks to delivering supplies and cultural differences in communication approaches. “Finding the optimal route for delivering supplies, i.e. one that avoids all the flooding and debris in the roads, doesn’t do any good if the official in charge of a roadblock hasn’t been told that you have permission to be there, or if no trucks are available because they have been requisitioned for other purposes.”

Researchers in this field, Zobel said, tend to concentrate on particular aspects of the supply chain’s operations — inventory management, transportation, or facility location, for example — rather than the entire chain all at once, because “we can make the whole supply chain more effective if we can work on manageable portions of it first.”

Zobel’s former doctoral student, Mauro Falasca, now an assistant professor at East Carolina University, studied the problem of scheduling volunteers in humanitarian organizations.

“In many humanitarian supply chains, volunteers are the primary labor source,” said Zobel. “Because their needs and motivations are generally different from those of paid employees, it is essential for volunteers’ preferences to be carefully taken into account in order to better retain their labor for future use. Mauro created a model that allows someone to easily examine the tradeoffs necessary to ensure that a volunteer-driven organization can meet its goals.”

Doing a good job in scheduling and retaining volunteers, Zobel said, can help one do a better job of managing the overall supply chain.

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