July 5, 2016
The toughest math story problems of all

If you would rather see an oral surgeon for a root canal instead of trying to solve a math story problem, you are in good company. Mathematics, especially math story problems, terrify a great many adults, including me.  It was a shock, therefore, to discover that I have become fascinated by analytics—still terrified, mind you, but fascinated just the same.  And it could happen to you, too, that is if it hasn’t already.

The thing is, people using advanced analytical methods are taking on some of the toughest problems in the world, the real world, and making things better. At, for instance, the federal government posts a list of hundreds of tough problems in need of solving, many with big prize money attached. The idea is to drive innovation and “make the impossible possible.”  Who wouldn’t be inspired by a vision like that?

Then there is INFORMS, the Institute for Operational Research and the Management Sciences, a leading international association of professionals in analytics and operations research. INFORMS’ Franz Edelman Award recognizes “excellence in developing and applying advanced analytical methods to help organizations solve complex problems or create new opportunities that result in highly impactful outcomes for the economy and society.”  According to a recent press release, finalist teams have contributed more than $240 billion in benefits to business and the public since it began in 1972.

It will probably come as no surprise to hear that transportation companies have been winners of this award over the years.  In fact, UPS was honored with the 2016 award in April of this year. The company was selected from among six finalists for its On Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation (ORION) project. At the heart of the ORION project is an algorithm that automatically plots the course of more than 30,000 UPS vehicle drivers every day. According to UPS, when ORION is fully deployed by the end of this year, that number will jump to 55,000 drivers.

UPS credits ORION with reducing CO2 emissions by 100,000 metric tons every year and expects it to save the company $300 million to $400 million annually when it is fully implemented.  The company notes that ORION uses analytics and operations research to “capitalize on the small efficiencies on the front lines and to use the power of data and heuristics to constantly improve performance.”

For the trucking industry, surely one of the toughest problems of all has to be routing and scheduling. Believe it or not, solving routing and scheduling problems has become something of an international pastime. 

Known as the Vehicle Routing Problem with Time Windows, or VRPTW, people, including those at software developer Quintiq, have been working to do a better and better job of solving the puzzle for decades. There are rules for this pursuit that look a lot like the challenges of everyday fleet operations. Quintiq ticks them off on its website: “You have a central depot and a set of customers; each customer requires a specified volume to be delivered within a specified time window—this varies from customer to customer … You have a set of vehicles, each of which has a maximum capacity. It’s not possible to spread one order across more than one vehicle.”

The company reports that in January of this year, it beat the former world record for solving the 1,000-customer version of the VRPTW—solving the puzzle with 36 routes and a total travel distance of 8,107.82 mi.

From this analytical vantage point, trucking looks a lot like one big math story problem, doesn’t it?

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