Clemson delves into the science of Santa
CLEMSON — If Santa Claus is the guy who delivers your presents, Scott Mason is the one who tells him the best way to get to your chimney.
Mason is a Clemson University logistics expert who builds models that consider the millions of variables that go into figuring out how to ship goods across the country, a problem never more difficult than in the holiday shopping season.
No one is better positioned to understand the central role South Carolina plays in moving a lot of those gifts than Mason, who is Fluor Endowed Chair in Supply Chain Optimization and Logistics.
The stakes are high. If retailers can’t get the products customers want, they risk losing sales to competitors.
“The customer is the king because if you can’t deliver it, he will go to someone else who can,” said Mason, who also is the interim department chairman for industrial engineering.
Mason and other researchers help make logistics seem simple: a few clicks of the mouse and a package arrives on the doorstep a few days later.
But there is an incredible amount of math and science behind the trip, Mason said.
Mason marks maps with “nodes” and “arcs.” Nodes are the facilities and arcs are how to connect them.
The models he builds include locations of suppliers, distribution centers and stores and whether it’s best to ship by truck, train, boat or air. He also factors in what products customers are expected to want.
The goal is to find the most cost- and time-effective way to ship goods, Mason said.
“If all of your demand is on the Eastern Seaboard, you may not want to put all your facilities in Denver or Seattle,” he said.
With its interstates, ports, rail lines and cargo airports, South Carolina already is a major player in the logistics business, Mason said. Furthermore, Walmart has a distribution facility in Laurens, while Target has one in Lugoff and Amazon has two in Spartanburg and West Columbia.
“We do things year-round that matter,” Mason said. “Christmas is just a spotlight on what we can do in this state and what we do every day.”
It also helps that South Carolina is positioned in the heart of the fast-growing Southeast, Mason said.
Mason expects the state’s role in Santa’s transit system to expand when the Panama Canal expansion opens East Coast ports to megaships from China and other Asian countries.
The Port of Charleston is being deepened to accommodate the ships, a project that should mean more freight coming into the state, Mason said.
“It’s a great success story,” he said. “They’re going to be ready for these big boats. I think the port is well on its way to reclaiming leadership position as one of the premier destinations for large boats in the U.S.”
While Mason and other Clemson researchers won’t be delivering packages themselves, they have come up with several “pieces of the puzzle” that are having an indirect effect on how those packages get to doorsteps, he said.
Their work is continuing with a statewide freight plan that focuses on the state’s commodities and where transportation infrastructure needs improvement.
Mason said one of his fellow Clemson industrial engineering researchers also is studying the possibility of using standardized containers that could be shared between shipping companies.
“A UPS and FedEx wouldn’t have half-empty trucks but work together to get economies of scale for more efficient and more environmentally friendly transportation,” he said.