Friday, 6 February 2009

Excellence in Industry


Yesterday I was at the 23rd Belgian Conference on Operations Research (http://www.orbel09.be/). It was hosted by the University of Leuven in the ancient city of Leuven, a wonderful setting for such a conference at wich also Martin Grötschel and Maurice Queryanne were present as plenary speakers. I really recommend you to visit Leuven, even if you have little time available. A very good way to plan for such a trip is to use http://www.citytripplanner.com/ .

I was in Leuven as a member of the committee for the Excellence in Industry award that is sponsored by the company I work for, ORTEC. For the award 6 projects were nominated. Each submitted project was asked to present the project in a 20 minute speech. Since the award is about Excellence in Industry criteria such a business relevance and practicality of the solution were very important in evaluating each of the submitted projects. But than again, that is what Operations research is about, improve and enhance operations.

The winner of the award was the integrated berth allocation and crane assignment model of Rowan van Schaeren. In his project he succeeded to combine the berth allocation and the quay crane planning for a container terminal in the Antwerp harbour. The combination of the two is unique, but more important, the model was applied in practice in such a way that the container terminal is able to lessen the time required for a ship to spend at the terminal. It therefore saves money. Second, the model also assists the planners of the terminal in creating a plan, reducing their effort. Before the model was available, the berth allocation and crane assignment was done manually and separate from each other. Getting a feasible plan was a first priority. With the model in place, the planners can now focus on the quality of the plans and also better manage the cost of manpower on the terminal. This is what Operations research is about, improving Operations!

The runner up for the award actually was the project that resulted in the city trip planner I mentioned above. It also is a wonderful and very practical application of Operations Research; it even works on a smart phone. The idea was born out of a need of tourists to select locations in Leuven that they could visit given their available time. Leuven has many points of interest (around 170) that make it impossible to visit them all in a short time (say a weekend or a day trip). To help the tourist decide on which points of interest to visit a website was developed, with behind it a model to support the tourist in planning the city trip. On the website you can fill in a short questionnaire on the kind of points of interest you would like to visit and your available time. What is interesting is that questionnaire also asks you to add keywords on subjects or general interests you have. These keywords are used to query the descriptions of the points of interest to select the best matches. Based on the scores of each point of interest, the travel time between each of the points, expected length of stay and the available time for the trip, a plan is suggested including a route which you can print or download on your cell phone. Again a very practical application of Operations Research.

Given the possibilities Google offers in real time tracking of cell phones I can imagine that extending the city trip model to reduce queuing at popular sites or even using the length of stay at each location to better estimate trip length is easy. Not to mention the possibility to have the model order your beer in advance, so it’s waiting for you when you arrive at the end of your city trip. Not sure if I would like that.
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