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Hani Mahmassani, Transportation Center Driving Supply Chain Innovation

Mahmassani provides an expert voice around the world during the pandemic

The past 15 months have proven Hani Mahmassani can pivot when needed, tackle a new problem, and not miss a beat, thanks to a toolset that allows him to immediately add insight and find answers.

The study of transportation is essentially about how to move people and products as efficiently and quickly as possible in a sustainable and socially equitable manner.

During the pandemic – one of the greatest supply-chain challenges in recent history – Hani Mahmassani, the William A. Patterson Distinguished Chair in Transportation and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern Engineering, has been making important contributions by working with industry on new ideas to efficiently move products, including COVID-19 vaccines, while explaining it all in plain terms to the general public.

“Transportation is so closely tied to society, to our everyday life in many ways,” said Mahmassani, an internationally known logistics expert. “While it is an engineering discipline, on a day-to-day basis we’re intertwined with everything that we humans do.”

Mahmassani is the director of the Northwestern University Transportation Center (NUTC), a leading interdisciplinary education and research center serving industry, the government, and the public.

Hani Mahmassani

The past 15 months have proven he can pivot when needed, tackle a new problem, and not miss a beat, thanks to a toolset that allows him to immediately add insight and find answers.

“He has a deep knowledge of logistics,” said Joseph Schofer, professor of civil and environmental engineering and an expert in transportation. “The pandemic comes along, and, on the surface, it may not look like a logistics problem but indeed it is. He has that nimbleness and ability.”

Supply chain interest

In early 2020, when widespread panic spread over the availability of soap and toilet paper exposed upended distribution patterns, widespread interest in supply chains peaked.  

Joseph Schofer

This led Mahmassani and the NUTC’s Business Advisory Council (BAC) to hold nine weekly asynchronous roundtables in the spring of 2020 with members, looking into the state of the supply chain and what was affected. These events with BAC members, who come from industries such as shipping, transportation, logistics, and other related sectors, paid dividends for the center by reinforcing relationships with its partners. Meanwhile, the exchange of ideas and research helped formulate strategies to get needed products into the hands of consumers, through leveraging real-time data to identify and anticipate problem areas, intensifying communication with all actors along the supply chain, and engaging in collaborative arrangements even amongst competitors.  

“Our center always has been at the vanguard of developments in terms of professional outreach as well as engagement, but that is especially true now,” said Mahmassani, who was elected to the National Academy of Engineering earlier this year.

Vaccine logistics

In fall 2020, the need for the unprecedented fast and safe deployment of vaccines became a reality. 

Karen Smilowitz

Mahmassani and Karen Smilowitz, James N. and Margie M. Krebs Professor in Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences, received a National Science Foundation RAPID grant to track vaccine distribution and include discussions with leaders of major shipping and transportation companies. The $125,000 award will go toward research into providing interim guidance for the latter portions of the continuing deployment process, and extracting lessons learned and principles for the robust design and resilient operation of future extreme logistics deployments to follow, including other health-related crises and disaster response situations.

Smilowitz credited Mahmassani’s enthusiasm and passion for identifying problems and finding solutions.

“I don’t think he sleeps,” she said. “He has great energy.”

In addition, NUTC held a panel session for BAC members with representatives of the medical field that explored the supply chain logistics of distributing vaccines. The fall event resulted in new ideas for distribution and how to keep vaccines refrigerated appropriately during the delivery process.

Communication skills

Fluent in Arabic, French, and English, one of Mahmassani’s gifts is his ability to communicate complex ideas to the general public.

When the Suez Canal was blocked in March after a container ship was grounded, stopping around 12 percent of international trade, Mahmassani was sought out as an expert by international media outlets, including Al Jazeera and Sky News.

“It’s exhilarating and exciting,” said Mahmassani, a member of the Panama Canal advisory board. “I feel really lucky to be in that position and to be able to comment.”

That ability, and willingness to give his time to the media, has helped Mahmassani communicate directly to people affected by supply chain challenges.

As the lockdowns came fast and furious, he explained in media appearances and to center members that supply chains were hit hard because there was little time to plan for the pandemic’s impact. However, later in the pandemic, industry and governments were able prepare for rolling out the vaccines, he said. 

Smilowitz said it’s important to work with all aspects of the supply chain and make sure they understand and appreciate what academic research can provide. Mahmassani’s communication skills make that possible, and they also help him convey important messages to the public. 

I don’t think (Mahmassani) sleeps. He has great energy. Karen Smilowitz James N. and Margie M. Krebs Professor in Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences

“Transportation is one of those research fields that sits between methodology and application,” Smilowitz said. “It’s really important to be able to communicate because everything we do is motivated by what you see every day.”

Perhaps no logistics challenge has been as crucial as moving COVID-19 vaccines to the public. Mahmassani has given reasons why, despite some early hiccups, the initiative has been largely successful.

For instance, Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership to produce vaccines that began in 2020, benefited from working with six different vendors, produced three approved vaccines and has positioned the United States ahead of much of the world. That was an example, Mahmassani said, of the U.S. learning from the early challenges of the pandemic by diversifying suppliers and not relying on just one. Mahmassani has made dozens of media appearances since Thanksgiving to discuss the challenges and best practices of getting vaccines into as many arms as possible.

His communication skills were sharpened in the classroom, where he has taught students to be adaptable, resilient, and to confidently solve problems by being aware of their surroundings and addressing timely issues using the core knowledge and toolset that a Northwestern education prepares them for.

“Hani is an important asset for Northwestern and for the field of transportation and logistics,” Schofer said. “A big part of that is he can blend a broad skillset with a ton of enthusiasm.”