It is hard to believe I am now four years removed from my time as a student in the International Business Management master’s degree program which I completed in Osnabrück, Germany. Looking back on my university days, some of my most prominent memories are those associated with projects I completed with external organizations. Together with a few other fellow students, I helped program a business controlling tool for a start-up company, conducted a retail location analysis for a regional grocery market chain, and provided Henkel with an innovative product idea for the year 2040.
These projects, or innovation challenges, had a tendency to become quite frustrating, as figuring out group dynamics and coordinating with busy business professionals proved to be very tedious. Furthermore, in some cases, very little feedback was offered from the external organizations, aside from the letter grade (or number grade in Germany) given at the end of the semester. That being said, whenever I am back visiting the city of Osnabrück, I have to smile every time I drive by the nearly-completed construction site for the new grocery store, knowing I stood at that exact location and measured traffic statistics.
Conducting an innovation challenge/competition offers a win-win situation for both companies and students:
- Develop team-work skills
- Gain practical experience
- Encouraged to be creative
- Have the chance (in some cases) to win a prize!
- Potential to land a job
- Obtain loads of ideas
- Receive positive press
- Increase recruiting opportunities
- Have the chance to save on R&D costs
We are continuously reading about the image problems and talent gap issues the supply chain industry is facing. Implementing similar challenges and innovation competitions in the logistics and supply chain industry, in my opinion, offers an opportunity to create some excitement and positive advancements across all functions of the supply chain, including procurement, warehouse management, production processes and delivery.
Not every company is willing to open its doors to a classroom filled with eager-to-impress students, but those that do will likely experience the win-win situation I presented above. In fact, many companies are already participating in this growing trend, gathering ideas on how to improve their supply chain processes from students and other external sources. Here are a few examples:
Amazon’s Picking Challenge
This is a story we covered last week in our supply chain weekly wrap-up. Amazon challenged companies and other institutions to build a robot that could help fulfill orders by picking the correct items from stocked warehouse shelves. Items in the challenge included a box of Oreos, tennis balls, a rubber duck and books. Amazon offered a total of $26,000 in prize money to the top-performing entrants. Each machine was evaluated on its ability to transfer items from the make-shift warehouse to a bin that awaited the arrival of a product across from the shelves. Points were deducted if a robot damaged, misplaced or dropped an item.
The winning robot was created by Team RBO from the Technical University in Berlin. This innovative group took home the grand prize of $20,000. Here is a video of their robot at work:
The picking robots displayed at this challenge are not ready to replace human workers, however I am certain that Amazon came away from this open innovation challenge with lots of insights on what it takes to build a fully automatic picking system. The students and organizations involved were also presented with some great networking opportunities, and in the case of the top three teams, some cash for their efforts.
Back in 2013, Hermes Group wanted to find out how they could better serve their customers. Hermes is headquartered in Germany and provides full-service supply chain solutions to leading retailers and brands, including sourcing, transport logistics, fulfillment and distribution of consumer goods. To gain some insight on this customer service topic, the company turned to the public for ideas in their “Idea Competition: Pick-up, Deliver…and what else?” (loosely translated from the company’s press release).
Hermes asked participants to send them ideas on how they could further simplify the daily lives of their customers. From over 380 submissions, the company chose its top three ideas and awarded € 8,500 in prize money. The top idea was called “Hermes Store-In” and involved the storage and time-displaced delivery of goods. According to this idea, Hermes would offer customers the opportunity to store various items from either a household or small business, and have the items delivered at a specified date. The company would take care of the entire process: pick-up, storage, and delivery.
This idea became a reality in 2014 as Hermes started their Send & Store service, a perfect example of outsourced idea generation for supply chain process improvement.
On March 9th 2015, BASF, the world’s largest chemical producer, announced the launch of its “Catch the Wind” student challenge. Participants are invited to submit a proposal on how to “Catch the wind with smart devices for tomorrow’s energy generation”. This particular challenge even allows five teams to build prototypes of their concepts. BASF is rewarding a total of €10,000 in prize money to the top three teams and a scaled 3D-print of the computer aided design for all teams. This is an ongoing competition and the deadline for submissions is June 30th.
I am sure the company will draw a large participation rate and receive several good ideas pertaining to the topic of decentralized wind energy generation. I also believe that the travel expenses and € 10,000 in prize money for top participants is a much more cost-efficient alternative to in-house R&D processes.
Creating an innovation competition for supply chain improvement can be quite beneficial for companies and the supply chain industry as a whole and can create some excitement in an industry that is all too often cited as being “boring”. Whenever a professor would stand up in front of the classroom and announce a practical project for the semester, my first thought was “oh no, not more group work…”Looking back, I now wish I was given the opportunity to complete more of these projects, even if the end result was just a grade, and no prize money. The practical experience and connections I gained from these projects is priceless. With companies, students, customers and the industry as a whole all benefiting from a little friendly challenge, all that’s left to say is “Let the competition begin!”
What other innovation challenges have you come across in the supply chain industry? Have you ever participated in one of these competitions?