Inside World Trade

Nobel Prize for Logistics

November 1, 2013
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Judging by the apparent surprise many of the Nobel Prize recipients express at being selected for the honor, they had no expectation of receiving that call from Stockholm. This year’s award for medicine may be as close as the logistics and supply chain communities come to such a prestigious acknowledgement.

One of the challenges posed by the many reporters who interview Nobel laureates is to ask them to simplify their explanation of their work so it can be understood by laymen. Here’s where the prize for medicine gives a nod to logistics.

Researchers James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Sudhof found that vesicles (small bubbles within a cell) act like a fleet of ships transporting their goods to the exact destination, according to a BBC report. It is ironic that among the many attempts to explain supply chain management is an analogy that it is like a massive circulatory system with transportation acting as the life blood, delivering the goods to this living global economic organism.

With a tip of the hat to Malcom McLean, the image of pin-head-sized vesicles transporting such things as enzymes throughout the human body is not unlike his use of ocean containers to move goods more efficiently in global commerce.

Even the language of the Nobel committee perpetuates the image, saying the medical research “had a major impact on our understanding of how cargo is delivered with timing and precision within and outside the cell.”

Except for the reference to a cellular level of activity, they could be introducing a discussion of any major manufacturing or retail supply chain. And, it gets better.

“Without this wonderfully precise organization, the cell would lapse into chaos.” We can all agree that a well-functioning supply chain avoids chaos.

But, chaos — in the form of supply chain disruptions — does happen. The researchers also found that a “defective vesicle transport system” is responsible for disruptions in the human body, in the form of diseases like diabetes and brain disorders.

It doesn’t seem necessary for supply chain professionals to continue expanding the biological imagery related to delivering the right thing to the right place at the right time and in the right condition. The good doctors will no doubt continue their collaboration and expand the effort to move the science of biologic supply chain management forward. In the meantime, supply chain management professionals around the globe will also continue to elevate the practice on a much less microscopic level.

We aren’t expecting a call from Stockholm any time soon, but it is certainly gratifying to see so much supply chain management language incorporated into this one Nobel Prize announcement. It could provide an opportunity for supply chain professionals to shine at cocktail receptions as we explain that what we do on a large scale with the goods of daily commerce is the subject of a Nobel Prize in medicine.


Perry A. Trunick, Editor-in-Chief 

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