From grain supply chains to flying medical devices: What’s next for TPEC?

By Travis Fried, Research Assistant, Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Driving south of the Twin Cities on a fall late afternoon, you’ll see the sun shining pale and coarse through the dust kicked up by autumn harvesters. On either side of the road, grain stalks roll on in a smooth, seemingly endless tan sheet. But when the harvest ends and the crops are sorted, where does all that grain go?

With grain and feed comprising 28 percent of all freight volume along local highways—the largest share of any commodity in the state—answering this question is not only a matter of safe and efficient transportation planning. It also means securing the livelihood of 340,000 state residents who work in Minnesota’s growing agriculture sector.

At the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, researchers with the Transportation Policy and Economic Competitiveness (TPEC) Program have mapped this movement on Minnesota roads. Our novel GIS-based approach unveils how technological, political, and market shifts in the grain supply chain impact the way local producers and wholesalers navigate their local freight networks—a network that spans road, rail, and barge infrastructure.


In October, TPEC held a roundtable to present findings to both agricultural and medical industry experts.

Our results visualize how increasing competition from larger, Class-I rail-served elevators—called “shuttle elevators” due to their ability to load 100-150 car shuttles at high-speeds—as well as emerging grain-derived markets like biofuel and dairy feedlots are pressuring grain producers to up truck fleets and haul longer distances to meet demand. TPEC suggests a number of policies to reduce the added stress to local roads, including stimulating short-line rail completion and loosening load-weight restrictions in high-demand months, among others.

The final study—authored by myself, Senior Research Fellow Lee Munnich, and Tom Horan—was accepted for early publication in the Transportation Research Board’s peer-reviewed journal. I also presented the findings at TRB’s 97th Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. This spring, I will be presenting TPEC’s work at the 59th Annual Transportation Research Forum and the Minnesota Grain & Feed Association Conference.


Amber Roads of Grain, an interactive “story map” developed by TPEC, teaches transportation planners about the grain supply chain.

With such excitement surrounding the grain study, it might surprise some that TPEC is shifting its attention to Minnesota’s medical supply chain. However, while cereal grain is Minnesota’s most prominent commodity in terms of volume, medical devices are among the highest in value.

Minnesota is home to med tech giants like Medtronic and 3M, and precision instruments—the standard commodity classification for medical devices—represent $34 billion in traded goods. The medical device industry employs roughly 29,000 state residents, ranking Minnesota as second among all states in the industry. However, these numbers do nothing to capture the breadth of players that make up Minnesota’s health care industry—including providers like the Mayo Clinic, biopharmaceutical manufacturers, integrators like FedEx, diagnostic laboratories, insurance companies, and the patients themselves.

In other words, like agriculture, the medical industry is a central driver of the Minnesota economy. But how do we design transportation policy that invigorates and accommodates growth in this burgeoning sector? What lessons are there to learn from grain that can inform this new study?

Health care providers depend on secure, speedy deliveries of goods to meet instantaneous need. Whether it is new diagnostic equipment, surgical instruments, temperature-sensitive drugs, or biologics (think organs), these goods rely on a complex freight network of trucking and aviation infrastructure. Federal health care policy, hospital restructuring, climate change, and advancements in packaging technologies are forcing industry experts and transportation planners to rethink investments to improve supply chain timeliness, cost, visibility, and resiliency.

Our study hopes to use a similar GIS approach as taken in the grain study; however, this study presents unique challenges and questions. First, unlike with grain—the production of  which is visible from space—the data to model medical device commodity flow simply is not there. We would have to develop a novel method to estimate and map freight generation and distribution from and within Minnesota.

Another challenge is that research on high-value and temperature-regulated supply chains is nowhere near as rich as that of agriculture or bulk supply chains. Air freight is a growing topic among general transportation planners, but its connection to the medical industry remains unexplored. This is surprising considering in the past decade, the total tonnage of precision instruments moved by air in Minnesota increased dramatically from 7 KTons to 32 KTons—a more than 500 percent increase in value.

That said, there are a number of intriguing questions that unite the medical supply chain and air freight discussions. As large manufacturing facilities are pushed outside of the metro area, what is the role of secondary airports—like Rochester International Airport, an important link in the health care industry—in the air freight network? How does efficient emergency weather management around aviation facilities affect the timeliness of just-in-time medical goods? How do newly imposed aviation policies, such as lithium battery regulation, adversely affect freight distribution of medical products like pacemakers?

These are just some of the questions we hope to explore in our upcoming study. By learning from our past efforts on mapping the grain supply chain, we hope to bring a unique, spatial perspective to transportation planners and policymakers that wish to see Minnesota as the country’s epicenter for med tech and health care.

Posted in Economics, Freight, Planning, Transportation research

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