SCL Studies Temperature-Controlled Supply Chains

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Most supply chains require that temperature sensitive products be protected by keeping the temperature within an acceptable range. For example, consider fresh fish, fruit, wine, or vaccines. These supply chains are especially challenging because the product is at risk of spoilage, and refrigeration or heating makes space aboard trucks or warehouses very expensive. Maintaining a proper and constant temperature is also a challenge.

The Supply Chain & Logistics Institute (SCL) at Georgia Tech's Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering has begun a new project to study and improve temperature-controlled supply chains. Leading this effort are Professors John Bartholdi and Don Ratliff.

"Our first project is devoted to the international supply chains that move wine from the great producing regions to the United States,* said Bartholdi.

To do this, the SCL team is collaborating with colleagues around the world to form the Wine Supply Chain Council. Current members, in addition to Georgia Tech, include the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) of Melbourne, Australia; Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile of Santiago, Chile; and the Council of Science and Industrial Research (CSIR) of Cape Town and Pretoria, South Africa.

According to Bartholdi, the challenges in moving wine are many. First is that wine is a natural product, the timing of which is determined by nature, not man, and so the initial portion of the supply chain is a "push* system. This must be matched with the remainder of the supply chain, which is a "pull* system in which product moves only in response to customer demand at the other end.

Another set of challenges arises when the grapes are ready to be picked, crushed, and fermented. Processing the grapes and juice requires specialized, capital-intensive equipment. This equipment is in sudden and constant demand during the harvest season and must be scheduled carefully so that the grape juice is guided with care to its realization as wine. This journey requires management by expert wine-makers and is in some ways more akin to an artisanal process than an industrial one.

When the wine is finally ready, there is the significant decision of when to bottle it. Some wines are bottled "to stock* and stored until ordered, while others are allowed to rest and are bottled only when ordered. But when the wine is ordered, it is loaded into 20' or 40' containers, driven to the port, and later loaded aboard a ship for travel. If the wine is traveling, say, to the United States from Chile, it must be decided whether to ship through the Port of Los Angeles, which may be congested, and then move the product eastward by truck. Alternatively, the product may travel through the Panama Canal (paying toll fees) and then to the Port of Savannah or Elizabeth, NJ, from where the distance by truck may be considerably less.

In either case, temperature is sure to be an issue. Extreme temperatures are an enemy of wine and can destroy the beauty of a product over which farmer and vintner have labored. To use the example of Chile again, some wines that are produced near Mendoza, Argentina are trucked over the Andes to one of the ports in Chile. During July the wine may be exposed to subfreezing temperatures. But then the ship must cross the equator, during which it may experience temperatures exceeding 105 degrees F (40 C). If the container of wine is unloaded on Friday afternoon, there is a chance it may bake in the sun until picked up Monday. The result could be a diminished quality of final product for the consumer and possible harm to the reputation of the winery, importer, and restaurant or wine store.

To study the extent of this risk, the Wine Supply Chain Council is conducting a global experiment in which "Thermochrons* (tiny devices to record both temperature and time) will be placed into cartons of wine being shipped to the United States. At the same time, movement of the cartons will be tracked by noting when they are scanned at various points in the supply chain (for example, arrival to and departure from key locations). When a carton of wine is finally opened and the Thermochron has been retrieved, temperature and location data will be synchronized to learn the temperature variations to which the wine is exposed, where, and why.

"By tracking hundreds of cartons from all over the world, we hope to piece together a picture of this supply chain that is unique in scale and detail,* says Bartholdi. "We will work with the wineries, carriers, and distributors all along the supply chain to improve the care and efficiency with which the product is handled.*

The Wine Supply Chain Council held an initial meeting in Atlanta in June 2006. During the meeting, they studied the challenges of distribution in the United States where every state has its own set of restrictions, customs, and laws. The second workshop was held in Santiago during March 2007. Participants visited wineries to observe the harvest and processing of grapes. The next meeting is tentatively planned for Australia later this year, and for South Africa in July 2008.

The Council plans to broaden its work in wine supply chains by adding new members, especially in Europe; and by looking at the transportation of fresh fruit and fish.

"In addition, we plan to use what we learn here to tackle similar problems in the movement of vaccines and other perishable medicines,* said Bartholdi.



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    Ruth Gregory
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