Supply Chain Matters had the opportunity to recently attend the 2014 Crossroads Conference hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Transportation and Logistics (CTL). Crossroads is an event that began 10 years ago, and each year we look forward to attending and hearing about leading-edge trends and developments in MIT supply chain focused research and across industry supply chains.

Each year, the agenda shifts in focus and the 2014 conference featured talks on advanced and emerging research occurring among select MIT faculty members.  The conference was kicked-off with a presentation from MIT Professor Suzanne Berger, principal author of the book, Making in America, From Innovation to Market. Professor Berger summarized the multi-year research conducted by the MIT Task Force on Production and Innovation. Supply Chain Matters has previously posted our summary of last year’s event that reported on the findings from the MIT PIE Task Force. None the less, the messages continue to have meaning.  MIT researchers studied and interviewed over 250 manufacturing start-up firms located in the United States, Germany and China. The principle takeaways summarized by Professor Berger were:

  • Industries do require close ties and integration among R&D, product design and manufacturing.  The MIT researches identified a meaningful pattern of successful firms that demonstrated specialized expertise in physical manufacturing bundled with specific customer-focused services.
  • Of the 250 manufacturing start-ups that were analyzed, most were able to gain funding for initial product design and concept in the first 3 years of the start-up. None were able to scale-up to full volume production in the United States because of the large dollar and process expertise investments required to scale. Industrial ecosystems that were once provided by industrial giants have moved outside of the United States, primarily in Germany and China. While 85 percent of advanced process and material research had roots in an academic institution such as MIT, most migrated to other global areas and according to the researchers and the U.S. continues to lose out on commercialization expertise. Professor Berger joked with the audience that the book could have be renamed to be “Home Alone”.
  • U.S. companies have huge pressures from Wall Street for shedding overall assets and focusing on short-term vs. longer-term focused results.
  • On the positive side, researchers cited existing U.S. public and private consortiums and partnerships as having a rather positive influence in providing needed expertise and infrastructure to sustain innovative manufacturers.


A rather sobering presentation, Is Cyber Security the Next Risk, was delivered by Dr. Abel Sanchez, Executive Director of the MIT Geospatial Data Center.  Sobering is probably an understatement because Dr. Sanchez provided mind-blowing examples of how easy it has become for unscrupulous parties to hack corporate systems today. We are not going to cite the specific statistics in our commentary from concern that such data would become more visible.  Suffice to state that the often cited statistic that 50 billion connected devices will exist by 2020 has to be factored against much stronger information security techniques.  Dr. Sanchez noted that an internal experiment was conducted within MIT when a single laptop with no security controls, was connected to the internal network for a 24 hour period. A visualization representation of the specific attacks that occurred from all parts of the globe on that single laptop in just that 24 hour period was sobering. Dr. Sanchez’s observation was that for the most part, corporations are not allocating sufficient attention or resources to address information security. Sanchez further pointed to the recent massive credit card security breach that occurred across Target retail stores as a potential benchmark for ascertaining corporate, government and personal security responsibilities.

Other highlights of the 2014 Crossroads event included a presentation from Professor Julie Shah of the MIT Interactive Robots Group depicting factories of the near-future, where robots and humans will work together interactively on flexible work sequencing and scheduling of assembly tasks.  The next-generation of robots will be responsive to high-level guidance from humans, and Prof. Shah outlined how assembly work can be coordinated among multiple robots in the not too distant future in applications such as aerospace, automotive or consumer electronics assembly manufacturing. MIT Self-Assembly Lab Director Skylar Tibbits provided insights into 4D Printing application concepts, where the emphasis shifts from the printer to essentially programmable, super high density or molecular “smart” materials which form desired shapes based on individual material properties. In his overview, Tibbits described the notion of materials that can assemble or repair themselves in application areas such as aeronautics, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and other area in the coming 5-10 years.

As always, Crossroads was a thought provoking conference focused on the future concepts of supply chain technology and processes.

Bob Ferrari