Logistics competition offers rare opportunity for students to test their skills

Annual event gives students industry experience employers want

What do maple syrup and the Marvel franchise have in common?

Both were elements of the 2023 Central Michigan University Logistics Undergraduate Case Competition held in November.

In its third year, the annual competition gave students coveted exposure to real-world logistical problems and opportunities to work in teams to identify applicable solutions. Divided into two levels, the competition was open to undergraduate students of all skills – a rarity for public case competitions, which are generally restricted to juniors and seniors and limited in the number of participants.

“How can we provide a pathway for students to start understanding what ‘logistics’ means? Most students understand marketing, finance or accounting, but if you ask them to explain logistics, they don’t quite know,” said logistics faculty member Evelyn Smith. “The competition allows students to experience the industry early on.”

Smith and fellow logistics faculty member Jim Taelman developed the higher level case competition from scratch, as they have each year. Five companies — Dow, Fifth Wheel Freight, Gordon Food Service, Penske and Ryder – sponsored the event at both levels and served as its judges.

Navigating a sticky situation

The first level of the CMU competition, ERPsim, was designed for freshman and sophomores to introduce them to logistical concepts.

Throughout the one-day competition, teams were judged on the logistics of the maple syrup industry, including order procurement, inventory management, pricing and other metrics in a highly interactive simulation. The winning team was the group that served the most customers at the highest revenue.

CMU students working in a computer lab while competing in the ERPsim portion of the Logistics Undergraduate Case Competition
CMU freshmen and sophomores participating in ERPsim during the Logistics Undergraduate Case Competition.

ERPsims — enterprise resource planning systems – are commonplace in the industry to help companies manage their logistical systems. Working with these systems helps students gain familiarity in how they operate and gives them a professional head start.

Savana Stewart, a junior from Jackson, competed in the ERPsim competition last year. Stewart also competed in this year’s case competition.

“ERPsim improved my ability to think on my feet and work through different issues in a short timeframe,” she said. “It also helped me understand that if one part of the supply chain is lacking, the entire business will be substantially impacted. My team last year ran into some issues with ordering materials, which resulted in a huge hit to our overall revenue. While it did cost us winning the case, it helped me realize that all of the parts have to be moving in unison to be successful.”

Developing “super” solutions

The second level of the competition, the case competition, was designed for juniors and seniors. Student teams were given the case and one week to provide solutions to help Stark Enterprises, a fictitious company facing superhero-sized logistical challenges with the production of its “Avengers” graphics cards.

CMU students presenting their case study in the Grawn Atrium during the Logistics Management Case Competition.
Finalists presenting their case study during the Logistics Undergraduate Case Competition.

All teams analyzed a large dataset – 10,000 lines – and provided short- and long-term solutions to the graphics cards dilemma. Three teams advanced to the final round, where they presented their recommendations to a room of 85 people and the judging panel.

“All of the teams came up with unique, industry-level solutions, which we were very happy to see,” Taelman said. “This competition is a great opportunity for students who can’t normally go to larger competitions. It gives them the exposure they may not have a chance to experience elsewhere.”

Ryan Kreusch, a senior from Midland, was part of this year’s winning team, along with Stewart. For Kreush, the competition allowed him to put his learnings into practice before he graduates.

“The competition is probably one of the most helpful things I’ve been involved with to prepare me for when I become a professional in the field,” he said. “It gives you the opportunity to take everything you’ve learned and apply all of it in one place.”

Bragging rights, scholarships, networking opportunities and in-demand experience

For students in both competition levels, it wasn’t just bragging rights on the line — $12,000 in scholarships — generously donated by CMU alumni Renaye and Jim Damman — were given to the top placing teams.

In addition, the judges’ perspectives help students understand how their solutions can be applied in a real setting. It also offered valuable face time with potential future employers.

It wasn’t just the students who were looking to impress. Logistics is an in-demand career path, and employers are heavily recruiting for the right talent. Having case competition experience sets CMU students far ahead of their peers.

“We have companies that are listing case competition experience in their criteria for interns and employees,” Smith said. “Hosting the competition right on campus allows students to set themselves apart from others.”

For Kreusch and Steward, the competition afforded them an opportunity most students don’t get.

“Other schools don’t have undergraduate case competitions like this,” Kreusch said. “At CMU, you can get involved with a well-written and judged case competition as soon as you come to college. It’s a tremendous opportunity.”

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