Crossing Frontiers

Crossing Frontiers

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

What does a pallet of freight have in common with a hospital patient? Radio frequency identification technology may be one answer since RFID tags can track goods or the progress of patients through a health care facility. It is the kind of connection that the new FedEx Institute of Technology wants to make as part of its mission to bring an interdisciplinary approach to supply-chain research.

An integrator''s answer to R&D, the institute opened for business Nov. 19 in a custom-built, $23 million facility in Memphis, Tenn. It is a collaborative venture between FedEx and the University of Memphis and has attracted a clutch of leading companies as alliance partners, including AT&T, Cisco Systems, SteelCase and Time Warner. FedEx donated $5 million to the institute, according to the company.

In a field already replete with high-profile names such as MIT, Georgia Tech and Stanford, why did FedEx decide to create a new educational center with a strong R&D component? "The original concept was to provide a high-tech training facility," said Jim Phillips, executive director of the institute. The concept grew from there as other research fields were added and the idea took on a regional scale. FedEx founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman Fred W. Smith, called the institute "a center of excellence for information technology."

One of the goals is to put the mid-South on the academic map by using local talent "without having to fly to the East or West Coast," said Jim Thannum, managing director at FedEx. Memphis is already a national distribution hub and the aim is to make the FedEx institute a focal point for research and to "keep some of these technologies in the mid-area of the U.S.," he said.

The institute houses 10 research centers focusing on subjects as diverse as artificial intelligence, multimedia arts and spatial analysis. The FedEx Center for Supply-Chain Management "is one of the biggest components," said Phillips, and will focus on industry-specific areas such as just-in-time manufacturing and cycle times. It also offers a full menu of classes for supply-chain students and executives.

But it is the facility''s broad academic base that distinguishes it as a center of learning, according to Phillips. For instance, it has one of the largest centers for biosurfaces research to draw on. The supply-chain connection may not be obvious but, as Phillips explained, the biosurfaces unit is "merging tissue with stainless steel composites and they have huge supply-chain issues." Work going on in nanotechnology - micro research that goes down to the atomic level - influences the development of RFID tags, he said.

"We have a think tank of 12 Ph.D.s, mostly computer science and engineering, supply-chain management, artificial intelligence and psychology," said Phillips.

Classes start in January, Phillips said. In addition to courses found on other supply-chain specialist campuses, the facility offers options in e-commerce and globalization that are unique to the institute, he said. Also on the agenda for next year is a "huge symposium on supply-chain management" that will be held in cooperation with local companies such as International Paper, said Phillips.