Final Five

with Pitu Mirchandani, senior sustainability scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

Pitu Mirchandani (right) 

Pitu Mirchandani, a professor in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering at Arizona State University, recently earned Avnet Chair in Supply Chain Networks for his work in advancing the fundamental engineering and science involved in logistics. As an Avnet professor, Mirchandani will be able to advance supply chain education and research. 

What is the focus of your research in supply chains?

Currently, I'm mostly interested in supply chains for service systems and humanitarian logistics. In most of these cases, we are making scheduling, dispatching and logistics decisions in the face of significant uncertainties in demand and supplies. For example, I am working with a Ph.D. student studying the blood supply network from donors to patients through distributors and hospitals. Here, both the supply of various blood types … and the demand – patient types – are stochastic.

What factors led you to supply chain engineering?

With a degree in operations research, I have a license to work in many areas from developing mathematical theories and algorithms to applications in many domains, such as manufacturing, service systems, freight transportation and so on. My Ph.D. was in delivery of emergency services on a stochastic transportation network. Very early in my academic career, I was working with a Ph.D. student who was interested in studying the potential of desalinizing water and distributing it to agricultural crops in the country of Jordan. The student's doctoral work ended up being an excellent mix of stochastic processes, network flows and statistical analysis as applied to studying the viability of an optimized water distribution network.

How is modern computer science currently influencing supply chain optimization?

I'm involved in a National Science Foundation grant where I'm studying a system I call MIDAS – "Managing Interacting Demands and Supplies," a cyber physical system (CPS) with the goal of taking the streaming "big" location and other data from cellphones and traffic detectors and then proactively influencing the traffic demand and supply decisions, which includes decisions on departure time and route choice advisories to setting appropriate traffic signals for the resultant traffic load, all done quickly and in real time within a cloud of servers.

Can you describe an "aha" moment in your career?

My "aha" moment took place about 15 years ago when I was studying a proactive signal control system called RHODES for making real-time traffic timing decisions, and we were trying to send detector information to a central server. After experiencing difficulties in implementing the communication hardware between the detectors and the servers, we temporarily used the cellphone and wireless networks. Then I said, "Aha, why not use the cellular network, and even the Wi-Fi network, at all times instead of temporarily," thus leading to the concept of MIDAS-CPS.

What industries today need the most improvement in supply chain management?

With the exception of some well-known examples where industries have redefined their production and/or service processes and have developed new distribution and supply chain concepts such as cross-docking, we cannot categorize "industries" needing improvements as opposed to "firms" needing improvements. My general feeling is that many firms and industries could improve by faster decision-making afforded by CPS throughout their organizations.

– Interview by David Brandt 

David Brandt is the Web managing editor for IIE.