Inside Supply Management Magazine

The Community’s View of Supply Chains

May 28, 2019

Visibility and transparency along the supply chain are key strategies for today’s companies as they work to manage risk. But modern supply chain management may overlook a key aspect: the individual company’s place within the complete supply chain of the community its facilities are located in.

“When you choose to locate facilities in a certain location, you’re making strategic choices,” says Ben Ruddell, Ph.D., Director of the School of Informatics, Computing and Cyber Systems at Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff, Arizona. “You’re adopting that location’s supply chain and ecosystem as your own. You might want to look at how resilient or secure the electricity or natural gas supply is. When you join a community, you become vulnerable to what the community is vulnerable to, and you take on a role in supporting that community’s complete supply chain.”

Ruddell is director of the FEWSION Project, a data fusion project that maps the supply chains for food, energy and water (FEW) systems and other supply chains for communities in the U.S. “What we’ve done is carefully fused hundreds of different publicly available data sources into a complete picture of what a community’s complete supply chain looks like” he says. “We have mapped almost every sector of the economy.”

The FEWSION project was launched in 2016 using a four-year grant from the Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is a collaboration between NAU scientists and other universities and researchers.

Last month, NAU partnered with the Decision Theater at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, to launch the FEW-View tool, a free online educational resource enabling the public, government officials and business leaders to visualize the supply chain of their town, county or state and to see how communities across the country are connected. For example, they can see where their community’s food and fuel comes from and what the water footprint of that food and fuel is.

“We’re not giving you an average number that comes out of a database, like the average water use of a U.S. company or citizen,” Ruddell says. “This is spatially detailed data. What we’re giving you is your community’s actual supply chain, for instance, the actual water that was used in specific locations along your supply chain.”

Richard Rushforth, lead research analyst on the FEWSION project, says, "With people wanting more transparency over where their food is coming from or where the things they buy are produced, this provides an interesting tool for them to engage with. It's an interesting way for community members to start learning about supply chain and how they interact with supply chains.” There are a lot of different facets to the data, he says.

The tool also can be used to estimate the effect of severe events, such as a hurricane in Houston or a trade war, on a community’s supply chain. “Supply chains are upstream as well as downstream,” Ruddell says. “While usually we want to know where our food comes from, the more important questions for leaders may be: Where are my community’s customers? How dependent is my community on exports to a given part of the world or country — like China?”

Other features include analysis of a community’s supply chain circularity, local sourcing, vulnerability, resilience and diversity, all of which are strategically useful for companies considering locating a factory or headquarters — or that already have them — in a community, Ruddell says. “For instance, (you can find out) how many places the community is getting gasoline or electricity from,” he notes. “This will tell you about the location’s resilience — if you have a lot of different suppliers, you're easily able to switch between them if something happens to one, whereas you're not able to adapt if the community is too dependent on one supplier.”

Supply management professionals, however, shouldn’t expect to get information about their company’s individual supply chain, Ruddell cautions: “We don’t know anything about your business’s supply chain; your business is one small piece of the community. You’re in the data, but you’re one of the decimal points in the data. We don't know anything about your private logistics. But we know your community’s logistics”. This is information most logisticians currently lack.

This information helps companies — especially medium and large companies — with facility strategy, Ruddell says. “This tool allows you to create that situational awareness about what's going on in your community, and it allows you to adjust your operations or choose to invest or not in the location based on high-level strategic information about the community or state as a whole.”

The tool’s information should also be helpful for business continuity planners, sustainability managers and continuity managers. “There is also a strong emergency management angle to this, too,” Ruddell says, as companies must make sure supplies continue to flow during and after emergencies.

He adds that future versions of the tool also will offer information on community greenhouse-gas footprints and land-use data, among other enhancements.