Smeal professor balances supply and demand with honors program

Robert Novack, specializes in moving things from one step to the next, whether it’s a product rolling onto the next conveyor belt in an assembly line or a student graduating from Penn State and moving on to the start of their career.

Novack, an associate professor of supply chain and information systems in the Smeal College of Business, is proud to say that he puts the students first, and it’s very important to him where they’re going next.

“I’m able to set up these trips because of connections through where I have been before and where I currently have past students working,” Novack said. 

As part of the Schreyer Honors College’s Distinguished Honors Faculty Program (DHFP), Novack has been leading groups of Scholars on trips to distribution centers around the state to introduce more students to the logistics behind business. The trips are open to all Scholars, regardless of which academic college or major they are enrolled in.  

We sat down with Novack to learn more about what’s rolling along with his plan as a member of the DHFP.

1. How would you explain supply chain and business logistics to someone who is not familiar with the field?

We buy it, make it, move it and store it. If you ever buy something online, you see a product on the screen in front of you. We get it to you. We make sure it’s there, and you get it when we say you’re going to get it. We’re the operations.

Every company needs supply chain — banks, service organizations, institutions, government, etc. If you walk into a grocery store and wonder how all of those goods got there, we helped get them from the point of being manufactured, packaged, processed, shipped or to the store near you.

2. How did you get started in supply chain and business logistics?

I fell into business logistics as an undergrad student at Penn State. I was originally an economics major. The rest is history. I graduated from Penn State in 1977 and received my MBA (master of business administration) in 1979 from Penn State in logistics. I went out to work in the real world for five years for a motor carrier company and for a manufacturer. I’ve lived all over the place — Kansas, Cincinnati, Knoxville — all with the intent of eventually moving back to Penn State. I went back to school at the University of Tennessee and got my Ph.D. in 1986, and then came back to teach at Penn State.

3. What interests you the most about this field?

The fact that it’s always changing and always exciting. If you watch the Amazon Prime Air video, they show a drone helicopter delivering online goods in 30 minutes or less, which is amazing. There are always opportunities to do things better, cheaper, faster. It’s very dynamic. 

4.How has the technology changed since you have been in the field?

Technology has improved incredibly. Back when I started in business logistics, we didn’t even have computers or cellphones. You can look at today’s models and see how much technology has made an impact. Something else to take note of is that you don’t just use technology for technology’s sake. In supply chain, technology is an enabler — for quicker communications, quicker information, quicker transportation — but it doesn’t replace what we do.

5. Can you tell us about the trips you’ve planned for Scholars?

Have you ever wondered what happens after you click, “submit,” for an online shopping order? My goal for these trips is to make logistics interactive and engaging. This spring, we went to the Office Depot distribution center in Newville and we had the chance to see Kiva robot technology in action. We’ve had a day trip to the Walmart Distribution Center in Clearfield and an overnight trip to two distribution facilities in Hazelton: the United States Cold Storage (USCS) and M&M Mars distribution centers. In the fall, I’m currently looking at the possibility of a trip to a Wegman’s distribution center in Rochester, N.Y., and the Gardner’s Candy factory in Tyrone, which would be great opportunities.

Something I really like about these programs is that I get to meet students outside of this major and expose them to new knowledge and perspectives about the business industry. It’s relatable for everyone—everyone shops.

6. What are some other ways that you like to work with students aside from teaching and running trips?

I supervise Schreyer honors theses, master’s theses and theses in industrial engineering, and I’m on the Ph.D. committee for industrial engineering. I still keep in touch with my honors students from as far back as the ’80s.

7. What do you enjoy doing outside of the classroom when you’re not with your students?

I’m a big baseball fan. I personally believe that all of the other sports were made to fill the void when you can’t play baseball. I played ball myself, and then I coached in State College for 17 years from the time my son was little. My team is the Phillies, and my favorite player is Chase Utley, but Chooch (Carlos Ruiz) is a real close second. They’re the real heart of the team. I have three children who are all Penn Staters, and I love spending time with them. We are a proud Penn State family.

8. What is your best advice for juniors and seniors who aren’t so far from entering the working world?

If you’re looking for full-time work, work hard and get your resume in order. Keep your grades up. All of our students who are successful do co-ops or internships, so those are a great head start. Get involved. Don’t just join an organization — become the leader of that organization. Position yourself in that way because that’s what companies look for.

9. Penn State’s Supply Chain Management Program has been ranked No. 1 in the world. What is it like having the opportunity to be part of that faculty?

I look at what we do like being a chef. To have a good meal you have to have a good chef. You also have to have good ingredients. Within Smeal we have great faculty, but we also have great students. Our logistics department goes back to 1964. We keep everything very student-focused and are grateful to have a very, very strong alumni base. I would say that it is a very practically oriented program in order to develop technical skills for industry. Our students hit the ground running when they’re recruited, and they don’t have to go through a lot of training. My fellow faculty and I are very much focused on making sure students are well prepared for the companies they are being recruited by. 

10. What do you see up next for the supply chain industry?

We wanted two-day delivery. Then it was next-day delivery. Now we have same-day delivery. What’s next is whatever the consumer demands.

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Last Updated June 03, 2014