UNT researchers find prime location for study of logistics

More than 600 motor carrier companies, more than 50 air cargo carriers and more than $57 billion in imports and exports in 2010 make the Dallas-Fort Worth area the largest inland port in the U.S. and a major distribution center for North America. For researchers interested in the movement of goods along a supply chain, the area is a perfect location.

"Our proximity to so many resources, rail yards, airports, highways and intermodal centers gives us incredible opportunities to study how supply chains operate in the real world," says Terry Pohlen, associate professor of marketing and logistics at the University of North Texas. "You could say it serves as a real-life laboratory."

UNT's logistics experts work in the Complex Logistics Systems research cluster, and they teach students in the logistics and supply chain management degree program, which is ranked by Gartner Inc. as one of the top 25 in North America and in the top four for its internship program.

With research geared toward improving the industry, they also help national corporations through the Center for Logistics Education and Research, which Pohlen directs. The center is supported by major industry partners including Williamson-Dickie Manufacturing Co., Hostess Brands, Hillwood Investment Properties, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co., Sysco Foods, JCPenney, PepsiCo and Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co.

"The work the center's board is doing will help large supply chain systems uncover opportunities to realize safety improvements and cost saving measures," says Fred Malesa, BNSF Railway vice president of international intermodal marketing. "BNSF is proud to be a part of this important research."

Steve Swartz, associate professor of marketing and logistics, is working to make roads safer by developing assessment tools for professional driver safety training programs. The amount of large truck freight transportation has increased across the U.S. in recent decades, and Texas has more than 300,000 miles of roads — the most in the country. Historically, motor carrier safety has been viewed through an engineering lens, Swartz says. Engineers have focused on designing new concepts for vehicle equipment or creating gadgets with the goal of improving safety. But Swartz took a different approach with the safety research he began in 2004. Using behavior analysis principles, he asked drivers how they make safety decisions.

"I began looking into how to prevent accidents and asking what makes drivers decide to do what they do while they're on the road," Swartz says. "An assumption has been made in safety research that accidents can be prevented with more engineering, science and design. The notion of human error has been left out. Also, past research has largely relied on information exchanged among researchers, as opposed to information gained from the people who drive the trucks."

In Swartz's research, funded by the Texas Logistics Education Foundation and the Texas Motor Transport Association, he has interviewed more than 1,000 drivers, including rock haulers, municipal drivers and long-haul goods drivers. He also has gone on ride-alongs and taken professional driver training courses. He broadened his research by collaborating with businesses in the trucking and insurance industries.

Swartz found that overall, if drivers view their own safety performance as high, they are less likely to engage in unsafe behaviors. However, to take on the difficult task of changing unsafe behavior on a large scale, companies must focus training on changing driver attitudes, perceptions of control and self-assessment of safe behaviors.

Swartz's goal is to understand the decision-making process of drivers with impeccable driving records, and then develop training suggestions and assessment tools to improve safety for drivers of various skill levels.

In other research, Swartz works with Ila Manuj, assistant professor of marketing and logistics, and Atefeh Yazdanparast, a doctoral candidate in marketing and logistics, to examine how businesses can take a product-focused approach to logistics planning. They say businesses today are looking for innovative ways to restructure supply chains and open up new relationships.

"Marketing makes you want to buy a product, and logistics makes sure the product gets to you fresh, on time, safe and not damaged," Manuj says. "In this research, we are applying marketing principles of 'service-dominant logic' to logistics applications. Businesses want to find solutions that are co-created with others along the supply chain because those will be the most effective and valuable to consumers."

Co-created value begins with dialog, Manuj says, because a lack of dialog results in a failure to understand what brings value to the customer. In a recent example illustrating the importance of communication between service providers and customers, a logistics service company contracted with an outside carrier to provide uniformed drivers and next-day service to a customer.

When the company discovered the customer cared only that the freight was picked up on time and delivered damage free, it switched to a carrier that provided the exact service the customer required, improving its profit margins and decreasing costs for the customer.

In her newest research, Manuj is examining how companies with complex supply chains involving multiple countries and transit modes can manage risk. Supply chains for some companies are expanding geographically because they are beginning to put a stronger focus on their most successful business segments. She cites a leading consumer electronics company in the United States that is focusing its work on product development and design and outsourcing everything from production to delivery, relying on an efficient and safe supply chain.

"As supply chains become more complicated, you need more holistic and robust solutions," Manuj says. "The longer your supply chain, the higher the chances that an adverse event could affect your products, assets and people."