Iowa State students to travel to China to study Target’s supply chain

Target supply chain trip

The trip starts with a visit to a Target store and ends in China. Scott Grawe wants students to see all the points along a supply chain. Photo by Bob Elbert (Larger photo)

AMES, Iowa – A group of Iowa State University students will get a rare, behind-the-scenes look at how many of the products in your home get from a factory to the store shelves here in the U.S. Scott Grawe, an assistant professor of supply chain management, and Qing Hu, associate dean for graduate programs and research, created this case study trip that takes students to China to better understand supply chain logistics.

“For the students who have taken the international logistics class, where we do supply chain mapping, they get to see what a supply chain actually looks like,” Grawe said. “The trip really helps drive the point home that this is the product you might buy in a few weeks, and we see all the points in the supply chain that it touches in order to get to that shelf at Target.”

The trip, scheduled for March 2014, will be the second Grawe has led to China. Frank Montabon, an associate professor of supply chain management, who traveled to China with a group of MBA students in 2012, will join him as co-instructor. Students gained so much from the experience this past spring that Grawe wanted to give others the same opportunity.  

“I had two students come up to me after the trip and say, ‘If I had taken that trip before the last exam, I would have aced it.’ That’s because everything made so much more sense for the students, after seeing it first-hand,” Grawe said.

Alesha Smith

Alesha Smith

Alesha Smith can attest to the benefits of that first-hand experience. She was part of the group of 27 students that made the 10-day trip this past March. The case study started with a tour of a store and Target distribution center in Cedar Falls. Students then traveled to Los Angeles and spent a day at a port and deconsolidation facility before flying to China.

Target provided full access to its facilities, including a sourcing department, ports and a factory where many of its kitchen utensils are made. Seeing how products are handled, transported and stored helped Smith understand different elements of the process, such as the value of packaging.

“You see pallets stacked upon pallets and sometimes you could see damage occurring on the bottom levels holding the most weight. The packages also get thrown around quite a bit,” Smith said. “Now whenever I'm annoyed by the ridiculous amount of packaging my products come in, I understand why.”  

More than just a trip abroad       

To make this a true learning experience, Grawe worked with Target executives to create scenarios of supply chain problems for students to work in teams to solve. For example, one team had to find ways to put more products in overseas shipping containers to save on costs. Once the students returned to the U.S. they traveled to the Target headquarters in Minneapolis to present their ideas to senior leaders in the supply chain group.

“It really helped to keep the students engaged along the way when they knew their grade hinged on solving a problem. I was amazed at the level of engagement for this group of students,” Grawe said.

Colleen Thomas

Colleen Thomas

Colleen Thomas was part of the team looking for ways to efficiently utilize space in shipping containers and limit damage to products during shipping. Actually seeing the process made it easier to brainstorm solutions and apply what they have learned in the classroom, Thomas said. She also gained a better appreciation for what it takes to get the products she uses on a daily basis.

“We take for granted how many links there are in the supply chain to get the product from the supplier all the way to the end user,” Thomas said.

Competitive edge in the job market

Both Thomas and Smith were amazed by the access they had during the trip, especially after learning that only a few Target executives have seen the entire supply chain process. The two will graduate this fall and have found potential employers are equally impressed by the experience.

“As I’m applying for jobs, people see my resume and always ask, ‘You really went to China and you saw the entire supply chain process?’ They’re just shocked that a student would have that experience,” Thomas said.

And that is why Grawe is organizing the trip for a second year.

“It really gives the students that competitive edge, but it’s not just for Target,” Grawe said. “If a student wants to work for Starbucks, or any other company and they know what a supply chain looks like from end-to-end, it’s going to be a huge benefit for them.”

More information about the 2014 trip can be found at: