Out of this World to the Ends of the Earth, Details Matter

By Art Ibers, VP-Exploration & Mission Support, Lockheed Martin

Art Ibers, VP-Exploration & Mission Support, Lockheed Martin

Supply chains vary greatly in length and complexity. They can be as simple as moving office supplies across town, or as complex as coordinating just-in-time parts deliveries from multiple suppliers across thousands of miles.

This basic tenet of successful supply chain management is demonstrated on an extreme level at Lockheed Martin, where we move material through supply chains that stretch from out of this world to the end of the Earth—literally. Through our Cargo Mission Contract with NASA, we prepare supplies for delivery to the International Space Station, and our Antarctic Support Contract with the National Science Foundation (NSF) includes responsibility for resupplying the NSF-managed U.S. Antarctic Program, the national program of scientific research in Antarctica.

Both of these contracts involve thousands of different items, scores of vendors, multiple  carriers, and supply routes extending across many countries and continents. The cargo includes everything from toothpaste and peanut butter to delicate scientific instruments and samples that require special packaging and handling. Multiple technology systems support and facilitate the management and logistics challenges, but despite the supply chains’ extreme complexity, the success of these missions still hinges on the foundational principles of robust planning and uncompromising attention to detail.

In Time to Catch a Rocket

The NASA Cargo Mission Contract (CMC) operates out of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where we warehouse and maintain more than three million individual items, awaiting shipment to the International Space Station (ISS). These items range from spacecraft hardware and scientific experiments to everyday housekeeping and personal hygiene items. The primary supply chain challenges stem not from the volume of the materials, however, but from the dispersed sourcing, exacting requirements for handling, and the coordination required to ensure that each resupply mission includes exactly the right cargo, packaged precisely the right way, and delivered to the launch site safely, undamaged and in time to catch a rocket.

To assist in managing the myriad of logistical considerations, the CMC team uses a Microsoft SharePoint environment, called my CMC, which supports coordination across all supply chain partners. While my CMC provides the platform for day-to-day planning and communication, the team also conducts multiple reviews for every mission, both in person and virtually, to ensure that all assignments are on track and all details are identified and addressed.

Robust planning and execution processes are essential, because failure to provide the right supplies in good order and on time can have serious consequences for the astronauts onboard the ISS, for the science missions they support, and for the health and safety of the ISS itself. We can’t put a forgotten or damaged item in the mail the next day. We may have to wait months for the next resupply launch.

One of the World’s Longest Supply Chains

Supplying the ISS has many unique challenges, but delivering supplies to Antarctica actually depends upon a much longer supply chain. The relatively short season during which travel to the scientific stations is feasible presents the biggest challenge. The ‘austral summer’ is shortest at the geographic South Pole, where it is only warm enough for ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft to land between November and February. Similarly, over-ice traverses are dependent on favorable conditions. With no way to resupply the station for the remaining eight months of the year, it is essential to know that the right materials are on site when they’re needed. The team uses IBM’s Maximo asset management software, which is an upgrade implemented by Lockheed Martin, since we took over the ASC contract in 2012.

McMurdo Station, located on Ross Island, provides an excellent logistical hub for U.S. Antarctic Program-managed research sites as well as those of other nations relatively nearby. Although some supplies arrive during the research season aboard flights from New Zealand, the bulk of McMurdo’s supplies are delivered by ship. Each January, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter breaks a channel through the sea ice to allow a tanker and a resupply vessel to deliver six million gallons of fuel and six million pounds of cargo. Then the cargo vessel loads about five million pounds of scientific samples, used equipment, recyclables, and waste for the return trip to the U.S.

Materials bound for Palmer Station, located on the Antarctic Peninsula, require a variety of transportation modes between the U.S. and Chile before being loaded onto a research vessel that serves double duty as a scientific platform and a resupply ship. The final leg from Chile to Palmer Station involves a four-day crossing through some of the roughest seas on the planet.

For both CMC and ASC, programmatic success depends on reliable, round-trip logistics, where incoming and outgoing cargo is equally precious. Safe travel is essential. So, too is the successful return of science samples that often represent years of field work and in most cases cannot easily be replaced. In some cases, these samples are unique and irreplaceable.

Importance of Fundamentals

While the CMC and ASC programs represent extreme supply chain challenges, they also serve to remind us that the fundamentals of the supply chain logistics discipline are essentially the same everywhere. Increasingly capable and reliable technologies offer tremendous support for successfully managing all aspects of the supply chain, but they can never substitute for excellence in hands-on planning and attention to detail.

Our teams at Lockheed Martin have found that an unrelenting focus on the fundamentals begins with an employee culture that emphasizes the importance of each customer’s mission and an appreciation of the fact that every piece of cargo we deliver is critical to someone, in some way, and that it can never be taken for granted.

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