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From Grocery Store Merchandise to COVID-19 Vaccines, the 2021 Florida Supply Chain Summit Explains It All

By Keith Morelli

Supply Chain Summit

TAMPA (March 10, 2021) -- Florida, already on the map as a hub for global commerce, now is looking to go where no supply chain executive has gone before. Space. And automated vehicles. And connections between commercial carriers and traffic lights. And delivering life-saving vaccines chilled to 94 degrees below zero.

These were just some of the topics discussed in the 2021 Florida Supply Chain Summit, hosted by the USF Muma College of Business’ Monica Wooden Center for Supply Chain Management and Sustainability. The daylong event featured more than two dozen speakers addressing hundreds of virtual attendees involved in the supply chain field. To view a recording of the conference, click here.

The timing could not be better, as consumers’ eyes are now opened to significant shocks to the global supply chain during the pandemic.  Rarely have supply-chain leaders had to work through such challenging, complex and uncertain conditions, which illustrates the need for professionals to effectively build and manage resilient supply chains. 

The 2021 Florida Supply Chain Summit was organized by a steering committee that includes representatives from the Florida Department of Transportation, Datex, Port Tampa Bay, World Trade Center Miami and the USF Muma College of Business. 

Much of the talk focused on the economic recovery from the pandemic, what has been done and what needs to be done. It also revealed what may come down the road, with advancements in technology and the tweaks in transportation models.

On the Commercial Space Industry …

Mark Bontrager serves as vice president for Spaceport Operations for Space Florida, where he is responsible for the development and operations of Space Florida’s Spaceport assets.

“Space is kind of where rail was in the late 1800s or where air travel was after World War I,” he said. “There is tremendous activity and growth in this domain and we in Florida are privileged to be a part of this.

“We need to draw commercial space businesses to Florida,” he said. One day, millions of people will be working in space and supply chain needs to come into play. Power, water, food, all the things you need to survive on earth, you will need in space.

“We soon will return to the moon, and mars and we see Florida as a hub for global space commerce.”

Spaceports are the next logistics frontier, said Wayne Lambert, office manager of spaceports with the Florida Department of Transportation.

“We must deploy funding to encourage long-term space exploration to make Florida the place for space,” he said. Over the past decade, FDOT spaceport improvement program participated in 37 projects, he said. “This program was really put into place to grow the commercial space industry to Florida and keep it in Florida.

“The job growth we see in this industry carries a tremendous economic benefit,” he said. “We are building this industry in a way that is going to make Florida a leader for decades to come.”

On Automated Commercial Vehicles …

Raj Ponnaluri, a connected vehicles engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation, said the department is embracing the concept of connected and automated vehicles. Automated vehicles drive themselves while connected vehicles can be driverless and receive electronic directives from the lead vehicle.

The state wants to make sure the futuristic technology is safe, enhances mobility, inspires innovation and fosters talent.

“We think Florida is leading the nation,” he said. “The FDOT puts safety and mobility at the forefront. We have a strong and well-funded connected and automated vehicles program.”

Connected and automated vehicles include not just driverless trucks, but also a concept called platooning. That is where two trucks are electronically connected, one following closely behind the other resulting in better fuel economy, said Richard Bishop, CEO of Bishop Consulting. The first generation of connected vehicles used human drivers in each vehicle. The second generation of the technology used only one driver, in the lead vehicle, with the second vehicle following close behind receiving electronic instructions from the lead vehicle.

Delays in deliveries costs billions of dollars a year, and an emerging technology may ease some of that loss, said Eric Plapper, with HDR. Technology that coordinates truck movement with traffic signals is in development. This will enable electronic communication between trucks and traffic signals.

“This technology reduces travel times by 10 percent,” he said, “and the cost savings are pretty significant. The vehicle sends a message to a traffic signal and the signal sends a message back saying yes or no.”

On Vaccine Supply Chain …

“Ninety percent of the population has no idea how supply chains operate,” said Kevin Smith, president and CEO of Sustainable Supply Chain Consulting. “The public assumes they can find what they want where they want at any time.

Supply chain experts talked about the efforts and challenges in distributing the vaccine over the past couple of months.

Brad Parrish, vice president of engineering with FedEx who has 30 years of supply chain experience, ticked off some of the challenges: “Cold storage, refrigerated trucks, refrigerated docks, dry ice; when we talk about the cold chain … this is only a portion of it.”

Matt Cook is a senior director of Centralized Services Business Partnerships with Walgreens. Walgreens is a center where the public receives vaccines.

“We are in the middle of it,” he said. ”We have 9,200 locations out there and we have all aspects of COVID-19 delivery. We see challenges that everyone else faces with refrigeration and availability and we are not involved with just the last mile, but the last inch, putting the needle in the arm.

On Florida’s Economic Recovery …

With the COVID-19 pandemic serving as a backdrop, supply chain experts Tuesday predicted a somewhat rosy future for Florida’s economy, which has over the past couple of decades, sought to shed the label of being only a tourist capital. The reality is that Florida is positioned to be a hub of global commerce and it took a pandemic to bring that to the forefront. The economy was booming when COVID-19 came to town and while the tourist industry tanked, the supply chain industry kept the state afloat.

Experts from as far away as Northern Ireland convened Tuesday to discuss the state of the industry that transports goods from manufacturer to distribution center to stores to homes and into consumers arms.

Manuel Mencia, senior vice president of international trade and development for Enterprise Florida, agreed the state’s economy suffered through the pandemic, but he predicted great things over the next year or two. His comments summed up the consensus of experts discussing Florida’s recovering economy

“Obviously, we’ve taken a beating,” he said during a panel discussion Tuesday morning. “There are certain challenges unique to us that we face. From last year, our exports fell. However, we remained the sixth largest exporter in the U.S.

“That’s good news,” he said. “Coming out of the pandemic, one of our challenges will be our traditional markets in Latin America and the Caribbean. Those are not expected to come out of the pandemic as quickly as the U.S. and the developed world.”

He said Florida would likely see more of a recovery in 2022 and possibly extending into 2023. That is quick, given what the state has suffered through over the past year. That recovery is beyond Florida’s ever-present reputation as only a tourist destination.

“We finally have convinced the world that we are not your father’s Florida,” he said. “We are the fourth largest recipient of foreign investment in U.S.

“I was extremely concerned in the first phase of the pandemic,” he said. “Now I’m convinced, we will emerge as one of the great winners in the U.S. Besides our privileged geographic position, we have always had an excellent port and airport infrastructure.”

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the essential nature of effective supply chain operations, including the ability to order online and deliver food, pharmaceuticals and other goods to consumers’ homes. The significant shocks to the global supply chain during the pandemic opened consumers’ eyes to the importance of a stable global supply chain.  Rarely have supply-chain leaders had to work through such challenging, complex and uncertain conditions.

Industry leaders agree that Florida is uniquely situated to emerge as a hub for worldwide trade. There are 15 deep-water ports, 20 commercial service airports, 3,000 miles of freight rail tracks and 122,000 miles of flat highway systems.

Mark O’Connell, founder and CEO of OCO Gobal, called in from Belfast in Northern Ireland to be a panelist. He has worked with Florida since 2005, bringing trade investment to the state from abroad.

“I’m inspired by how firms have been able to adapt to the new reality in such a short period of time,” he said, referring to how the pandemic has shifted business practices around the globe. “There is a worry that conventional retail will be shut down for good, that this has created an uneven field. Yet, we see some sectors resilient and thriving during the pandemic. Equally, some areas are coming back faster than others are.

“I’ve sold Florida to investors for many years,” he said. “I see a good recovery in the second half of 2021, but it might be 2023 before economic levels get back to where they were in 2019. “From an international point of view, investors and citizens get envious when they see Floridians having fun again and businesses starting to thrive again. And that’s a very positive message.”