Transportation Research in ISyE


Barbara Christopher
Industrial and Systems Engineering
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Transportation Research in ISyE

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Large-scale, complex transportation systems pose significant challenges in terms of design and control. Many of these challenges, however, are well suited to analytical techniques of operations research and industrial engineering that form the core expertise of the faculty in the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech.

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The modern global economy functions in part due to the availability of efficient and reliable transportation systems that enable the mobility of people and freight locally, regionally, and globally. Focusing on the United States, the scale of many of these transportation systems is staggering: in 2006, 1.7 trillion vehicle-miles were traveled by passenger cars on our nation's highways, 700 million passengers were transported by airlines, 1.8 trillion ton-miles of freight were moved by railroads, and 2.6 billion tons of freight passed through seaports.

Large-scale, complex transportation systems pose significant challenges in terms of design and control. Many of these challenges, however, are well suited to analytical techniques of operations research and industrial engineering that form the core expertise of the faculty in the Stewart School. Operations research has a long history of successful application to transportation planning problems of a tactical nature. Such problems (including network design, service scheduling, fleet sizing and positioning, and resource and crew scheduling) have traditionally been modeled as large-scale deterministic optimization problems. More recently, researchers have addressed planning problems with models that explicitly consider inherent uncertainty in such systems. In response to continual improvements in computing power and information technology, the focus today has expanded to include problems of operational control where models can support decisions in real time.

Faculty and student researchers within the Stewart School have been active participants in the application of operations research to problems of transportation system design and control, and they continue that tradition to date. The group of industry sponsors and collaborators who have worked recently with faculty and student research teams includes industry leaders such as UPS, Schneider National, Norfolk Southern, Delta Airlines, ExxonMobil, Yellow-Roadway, and the Georgia Ports Authority.

Research and industry-sponsored educational activities in the area of transportation systems take a variety of forms at the Stewart School. Researchers are supported by federal grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as funds from the State of Georgia through the Center of Innovation for Logistics and from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Industry Studies Program. Large industry-funded collaborations are typically managed by contracts through Georgia Tech's Office of Sponsored Programs. Other industry collaborations are formalized as Leaders in Logistics projects through the Georgia Tech Supply Chain & Logistics Institute (SCL). Finally, transportation problems are frequently the focus of undergraduate Senior Design projects.

NSF funded a $1.1 million, three-year project titled "Collaborative Logistics," supporting the work of ISyE faculty members John Bartholdi, Ozlem Ergun, Pinar Keskinocak, Anton Kleywegt, George Nemhauser, Martin Savelsbergh, and their PhD students. The study, which concluded in 2007, covered a wide-range of topics, including inventory pooling in supply chains, collaborative procurement of truckload transportation services, dynamic pricing with buyers' learning, and carrier alliances and resource sharing. Another recent NSF award, to study "Risk Mitigation for Strategic Ports," provided $3.6 million in funding to support a large interdisciplinary research team led by Georgia Tech to investigate how to protect critical seaport infrastructure from major operational disruptions. Investigator Alan Erera is developing berth and quay crane scheduling optimization methods for this project to understand how to best recover operating capacity when some port components are damaged.

FHWA has supported ISyE research through a $1.4 million, multi-year grant to fund the "Transportation Research Center for Freight, Trade, Security, and Economic Strength." Co-directed by School Chair Chelsea C. White III and Erera, the center supported a diverse set of transportation-related research activities. On one project, the co-directors, along with faculty member Hayriye Ayhan, developed technology to improve route-finding for commercial vehicles given highway congestion, and efforts are underway to deploy this technology for rail container drayage trucks in the Kansas City area as part of the Cross-Town Improvement Project. Another project, led by faculty members Christos Alexopoulos and Dave Goldsman, focuses on developing a detailed simulation of operations at the Georgia Ports Authority's Savannah container port facility. Matching support for this research was provided by the Georgia Center of Innovation for Logistics.

In addition to government funding, ISyE researchers are often supported directly by companies through research grants. Two large contract research programs focused on transportation problems have been led by George Nemhauser and Savelsbergh. The first, funded by DayJet Corporation through 2008, focused on the development of various scheduling algorithms to support the operations of an airline offering per-seat, on-demand air transportation using a large fleet of very light jets. Unlike traditional airline planning problems where resource schedules can be planned in advance, the on-demand business model requires scheduling engines that can be used in real-time to determine whether to accept or reject a customer flight request and that can optimize resource schedules overnight for the next day's operation. A second ongoing project, funded by ExxonMobil, focuses on maritime routing and inventory management. Optimization technology is being developed for cost-effectively routing a pool of vessels and timing the loading, transporting, and discharging of bulk products to and from multiple ports.

Many companies choose to establish a research relationship with ISyE faculty through SCL's Leaders in Logistics program. One of the longest industry partnerships under this program supported the work of Savelsbergh with the industrial gas producer Praxair. The various research projects conducted over the years all focused on effectively exploiting the distribution flexibility offered by Praxair's vendor managed inventory resupply agreements with its customers.

Every research project described above has involved one or more graduate students in our School, typically those pursuing a PhD. By working on applied research, these students benefit by developing a solid understanding of how operations research and industrial engineering methodologies are used in practice and when and how existing tools must be extended to tackle new problems or enhanced to provide better solutions to old problems. Undergraduate students in our Senior Design program also have a chance to interact directly with faculty on problems faced by the transportation industry. Over the years, many projects have been sponsored by companies seeking to improve transportation activities; recent examples include projects from UPS on truck scheduling and auction-based procurement, from RaceTrac on routing and scheduling for fuel resupply at service stations, and from the Home Depot on managing the daily operations of a private fleet of trucks.

Transportation research and education activity is clearly alive and well within the Stewart School.

Professors Martin Savelsbergh and Alan Erera prepared this article for the Fall 2009 issue of Industrial and Systems Engineering, the alumni magazine of the Stewart School of ISyE.

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School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISYE)

Engineering, Research
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Transportation Research
  • Created By: Edie Cohen
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Jan 12, 2010 - 8:00pm
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 11:04pm