Georgia Tech

Industrial and Systems Engineers: Making a Difference in the World

Dec 18, 2012 | Atlanta, GA

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  • Ozlem Ergun, associate professor, Julie Swann, Harold R. and Mary Anne Nash Associate Professor, and Pinar Keskinocak, Joseph C. Mello Professor, are the founders & codirectors of the Center for Health & Humnanitarian Logistics.

  • Valerie Thomas, the Anderson Interface Associate Professor, studies energy efficiency in transportation, sustainability, and the use and environmental impacts of biofuels.

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Barbara Christopher
Industrial and Systems Engineering

It’s an ordinary Monday morning, and traffic snarls its way through the city as another workweek begins.

From a distribution center near the airport, truckers load up and head for grocery and big-box stores, carrying cargo from near and far: Georgia peaches, Chilean wines, Costa Rican flowers, Japanese auto parts, cotton t-shirts sewn in Guatemala, hand-crafted furniture from Milan.

In an office in Midtown, a dedicated public health worker contemplates her organization’s next international challenge: getting humanitarian aid to the globe’s newest natural disaster area as quickly, efficiently, and economically as possible.

A few blocks away, oblivious to the world outside, a retired teacher waits nervously in the outpatient wing of a local hospital. Today, she has her first radiation treatment—a five-minute insertion of removable irradiated seeds—meant to shrink her tumor and give her back her life.

Meanwhile, crowded together on a busy street corner on the Georgia Tech campus, ten new freshmen wait anxiously until, right on time, the next electric/hybrid campus shuttle bus arrives to take them to class.

It’s a typical day in a modern American city, with typical challenges and success stories for industrial and systems engineers. Though most people take such stories for granted, a quick look behind the scenes proves that in myriad ways, the work ISyE graduates do day in and day out makes a huge difference to huge numbers of people. It is no exaggeration to say that individual and societal health, world economies, and the daily routines and overall quality of life of millions of people around the globe are immeasurably improved by thoughtful application of basic principles and cutting-edge research unique to the discipline known as ISyE.

Let’s take a closer look.

The Global Supply Chain: From the World to Your Door (in 24 hours!)

To contemporary Georgia Tech ISyE faculty members and their students, popular consumer goods like peaches, wine, and fresh-cut flowers are only the tip of the iceberg in a global “cold food” supply chain that grows more complex every year. Today’s industrial and systems engineering challenges include traditional engineering concerns such as efficient manufacturing processes, durable packaging, and transportation and distribution logistics—as well as new challenges of food safety and traceability, cultural norms and government regulations in hundreds of sovereign nations, and the pivotal political, economic, and logistical role of the Panama Canal in world trade.

But let’s talk about wine. For the past three years, John J. Bartholdi III, Manhattan Associates Chair in Supply Chain Management, has been part of a project that monitors temperatures inside shipping containers on ships carrying food products all over the world. The monitoring device records internal temperatures every two hours around the clock. Bartholdi’s special focus, funded in part by an industry group, involves determining whether temperature variations affect the quality of wines imported into the U.S.

Tasting results are still being assessed, but other important findings have surfaced as well. “The wine tracking made us aware of the lack of standard terminology in the cold supply chain,” says Bartholdi. “International logistics are not standardized, and there is no established hierarchy of standards. The cold supply chain also includes a lot of small businesses providing things like fresh produce, making standardization even more of a challenge.” He expects these kinds of supply chain inconsistencies to become even more unacceptable in the next few years as international shippers gear up for the capacity increases spurred by the 2014 expansion of the Panama Canal.

The Panama Canal expansion is one big piece of an ever-growing logistics puzzle—a puzzle research engineers like Jaymie Forrest, managing director of the Georgia Tech Supply Chain & Logistics Institute, are uniquely positioned to solve. Working with the Panamanian government, Forrest and her colleagues have established a Panama Logistics Innovation & Research Center to improve the logistics capability of the canal’s host nation. The initiative aims to help position Panama as a distribution point for Asian products and—American corporations—as a gateway and trade hub for expanding U.S. markets and imports throughout Latin America. “Right now, our volume of trade is larger with Asia,” she observes, “but trade with Latin America is growing at a faster rate.” In the coming years, the Georgia Tech logistics experts will work with Panama to develop professional-level training in supply chain logistics; help the government and the port authority create a National Logistics Council; and pursue additional research to analyze and improve the country’s overall logistics platform. At a minimum, this platform includes the Panama Canal, container ports on two oceans plus a connecting railroad, multiple airports serving passengers and freight, special economic zones providing incentives to logistics operations, and a wide range of supporting logistics services. The cargo flowing through the canal will appear under flags from some 150 nations with crews speaking dozens of languages; the goods arriving in Panama for further shipping— or for offloading and distribution throughout Latin America—will come from thousands, if not millions, of suppliers. The impact of these infrastructure and logistics improvements will be felt worldwide for decades to come.

Challenges and Collaboration

“It used to be that industrial engineers focused mainly on the plant floor and looked for ways to make manufacturing processes more efficient,” says Bartholdi. “Then we moved to distribution and worked to make distribution systems more efficient. But since the 1990s, the world’s economic system has become more integrated, with everyone sourcing from everyone all over the world. As a result, industrial engineers have to work globally. You can’t coordinate things by staying home in your office—not when your supply chains reach around the world.”

According to Professor Emeritus Leon McGinnis, engineers traditionally looked at processes that were somewhat self-contained, where one person could see and understand those processes. “But today, the scope and scale of industrial engineering challenges exist at a much larger order of magnitude. The problems are no longer just industrial engineering problems; they may also be electrical, mechanical, medical, or political. We have to address problems more comprehensively and collaboratively across many different fields,” says McGinnis.

One way the Georgia Tech ISyE team is meeting these challenges is by leading in the teaching of a twenty first- century systems modeling language called SysML, an open-source specification adaptable to a wide range of systems engineering applications. As McGinnis explains, SysML ( can be customized for the task at hand, providing application modeling and automated transformation to simulation capability (dramatically reducing the cost) for many different companies, large or small. Georgia Tech, the only academic institution working as a named contributor on the SysML project, offers what many consider to be the world’s best-known and most comprehensive graduate and undergraduate curricula in SysML.

Yet for McGinnis and other senior ISyE faculty, the teaching challenges of this era go well beyond computational modeling; the goal is to expand knowledge, not merely capture and repeat it. “I want to get industrial engineers out of the business of building models they already know how to build,” McGinnis says. “In the future, IEs will need to move beyond the routine; we need to use our system modeling and analytical tools to build and manage large, multidisciplinary teams seeking transformational change.”

In the words of the National Academy of Engineering, the “grand challenges” for engineering in the next century lie squarely within these broad, multidisciplinary arenas—major undertakings such as providing universal access to clean water, advancing health informatics, and reverse engineering the brain. At a minimum, each of these challenges will require extensive collaboration across multiple disciplines, not to mention cultures and continents. And each challenge has key roles for industrial engineers.

“It’s hard study, but if you want to make a difference, industrial engineering is a career that matters,” says Jane Ammons, ISyE chair and past president of the Institute of Industrial Engineers. “We have the largest industrial engineering program in the U.S. We graduate 10 percent of the nation’s industrial engineers—and the quality and breadth of the talent here will have a major impact on the world of tomorrow.”

Engineering for Human Health and Well-Being

Perhaps nowhere is the impact of ISyE revealed more dramatically than in the medical world. From disaster relief, to nanomaterials, to breakthroughs in cancer irradiation techniques, ISyE faculty are recognized worldwide for creative application of different engineering disciplines in improving human health and well-being.

According to Nash Associate Professor Julie Swann, who also codirects Georgia Tech’s Center for Health & Humanitarian Logistics, the tools of industrial and systems engineering can be immensely helpful in analyzing and recommending new and more effective approaches to disaster relief and public health, both in the U.S. and around the world. Currently, she and her students are providing computer modeling as part of a cross-disciplinary project, the Caribbean Hazard Assessment Mitigation and Preparedness initiative (CHAMP), to assess preparedness against another catastrophe such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the massive earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. “Vulnerability during a disaster depends on a country’s environment and characteristics,” she says. “Income levels, governmental structure, the level of involvement by police—all these things can affect levels of mortality and economic damage. Using a statistics-based model, we want to predict which factors are the most critical in determining preparedness.”

Funded by a Georgia Tech alumnus, CHAMP evaluates hospitals and healthcare networks, supply and distribution chains to population centers, evacuation route capacity, building construction, and many other factors to help governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Red Cross, prepare for and understand vulnerabilities in disaster response. To date, the team has worked with governments and NGOs in Belize, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.

Closer to home, Swann and her collaborators have worked with Children’s Hospital of Atlanta to track childhood obesity; studied children’s distance from specialty pediatric care in many south Georgia counties; and worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and several state health departments, to determine the availability of the H1N1 flu vaccine and vaccination rates in nine southeastern states. A new project under way for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) evaluates the potential of telemedicine.

For Eva Lee, professor at ISyE, mathematical programming and largescale computational algorithms are tools to help save lives. Using systems modeling, algorithm and software design, and decision theory analysis to aid in healthcare decision-making, she has worked with medical personnel to develop advanced cancer irradiation techniques, consulted frequently with the CDC and the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and even journeyed to Japan for on-the ground research in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.

Lee’s cancer research focuses on using positron emission tomography imaging to locate malignant tumors, then computing algorithms to deliver a precise, escalated dose of radiation directly to the cancerous cells while leaving healthy tissue untouched. The technique has proven especially effective in treating cervical and prostate cancer.

“Cervical cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the world, and it has a 35 percent fatality rate if left untreated,” she says. “Our newest research involves using tiny, removable seeds to insert radiation inside the tumor—five minutes today, five minutes tomorrow. It’s a very exciting, novel approach that controls the tumor but preserves surrounding organs.”

In Japan last year, Lee was the first U.S. scientist to interview people living within fifteen miles of the destroyed Fukushima nuclear plants after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 19,000 people. Using RealOpt, a real-time public health pandemic, radiological, and biowarfare informatics-analytic system she developed several years ago for use by the CDC and local governments in the U.S., she collected data on evacuation timelines, radiological screening, and other information from the local population, including family members of workers at the nuclear plant. Her work group included not only U.S. colleagues from the CDC and National Science Foundation, but researchers from a local Japanese university as well.

ISyE faculty members Turgay Ayer and Chip White III are using their expertise in supply chain engineering to improve availability of a universally needed medical product: human blood. Their project, currently in the proposal stages, focuses on the routes and capabilities of blood-collection vehicles, familiar to most of us as bloodmobiles.

Every day, thousands of bloodmobiles around the world collect blood to be used for accident victims, surgery patients, and others in medical need. A small fraction of these vehicles carry very expensive, specialized equipment designed to collect blood that will be processed into a fast-clotting cryo blood product used in critical cases in emergency rooms. Unlike most blood collection, the blood to be used for cryo products must be frozen and separated within eight hours. All emergency rooms in a given region must have access to cryo products immediately when needed. The tough logistics question is this: Which bloodmobiles should collect blood for cryo uses, and how should they be routed to optimize the use of the cryo collection bays but also maximize the use of less expensive units?

“Focusing on the Atlanta area, our goal is to model and optimize a supply chain for this specific blood product,” explains White. “We’ll be looking at the current processes, adjusting routes throughout the week, and developing a better system for collecting this very time-sensitive, critical product.”

As White notes, the problem is not unlike the logistics challenges faced by UPS and other entities making stop-and-go pickups and deliveries in congested, high-traffic areas. And while all deliveries are important to their senders and recipients, the timely delivery of a critical cryo blood product can, quite literally, become a matter of life or death.

In some cases, an innovative application of industrial engineering in the medical field may be discovered by accident, or perhaps serendipity. At a professional conference a few years ago, Ben Wang, Gwaltney Chair in Manufacturing Systems and executive director of the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute (formerly known as the Manufacturing Research Center for Georgia Tech), met a medical specialist working with orthotic prostheses. After learning about Wang and his colleagues’ work in advanced composites, she proposed that Wang explore using some of these new materials to create lighter, more comfortable artificial limbs. The collaboration eventually led to an award from the VA to develop carbon nanomaterials as prostheses for amputees who lost limbs in military combat or through diabetes. “The key word is comfort,” says Wang. “The advanced materials improve the fit, the pressure points, humidity, and temperature of the prosthesis, so the patient can wear it longer and more comfortably.”

ISyE faculty members have even put their expertise to use to help de-stress Georgia Tech students and staff who depend on campus trolleys to get them to class and work on time. Ideally, the trolleys run on a schedule of one trolley every six minutes as they circulate throughout the campus. But for trolley operators, the challenge is always to avoid “bunching” during delays. Every time one trolley gets one minute behind, more people try to crowd on (causing more delay), and the impact cascades, resulting in a bunched-up row of trolleys going nowhere. By the time the sixth trolley departs from the bunch, it may be running more than six minutes behind. As a result, idle times and fuel consumption increase, students are tardy, and valuable class time is wasted—all at an avoidable cost that grows by the second.

To improve this situation, Bartholdi and a team of students stepped up. “We have collaborated with Georgia Tech's Department of Parking & Transportation to design a system of tablet computers, one per bus, so the buses can self-schedule,” explains Bartholdi. The self-equalizing schedule, based on automated GPS and cell phone communications with trolley drivers, was tested on campus in spring 2012 and will be implemented in fall 2012. In addition to helping congestion on the Georgia Tech campus, the team expects this approach to be useful for other transportation systems, such as subway trains and airport shuttles. A report on the project was published in a professional journal in May.

Manufacturing and More

Suppose your military unit is on assignment in Afghanistan, and your

vehicle needs a replacement part. Using a computer and software, a laser, and raw material consisting of powdered metal, your unit’s mechanics construct the replacement part immediately, on-site, and put your vehicle back in the field in hours—instead of days, or even longer.

This innovative new concept ofon-site manufacturing—known in the field as “additive manufacturing”— could eventually “change the face of manufacturing” and revolutionize large segments of traditional industries and associated supply chains, says Wang. He and his ISyE colleagues McGinnis, White, and Jan Shi are working closely with Mechanical Engineering Professors Suman Das and David Rosen, leaders in additive manufacturing, and are hard at work on developing real-world applications of additive manufacturing. With the additive manufacturing approach, a 3-D computer-assisted design (CAD) software programming blueprint for machine parts can be downloaded from the cloud (a storage space on the Internet), and the part can be constructed immediately on-site, using lasers and powdered metals. With an inventory consisting of bags of powdered metal, plus thousands of cloud-based product designs accessible for download anywhere, anytime, a machine shop or work group can produce hundreds of different parts as needed at the point of consumption.

Although this form of manufacturing is still in the beginning stages, the implications are profound, especially for military and time-sensitive applications. While parts made on-site by additive manufacturing might be more expensive individually than similar mass-produced parts, the ability to manufacture one part at a time, on demand, will result in time, opportunity, and energy savings. In military settings especially, making parts locally could greatly improve repair times and enhance surge capability as well. A shift to additive manufacturing would also streamline supply chain logistics from delivering huge, finished pieces to delivering bags of powdered metal.

For Wang, who coordinates Georgia Tech’s manufacturing activities, the concept of additive manufacturing holds immense potential at Georgia Tech. It is also very relevant with regard to his roles in assisting Georgia Tech president G.P. “Bud” Peterson, a board member on the Obama Administration’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership to support innovative manufacturing in the U.S., and Georgia Tech Executive Vice President for Research Stephen E. Cross, a member of the Defense Science Board.

Your workday is over, and now it’s time to take out the trash. But there’s a lot less of it than you expected—because more than half your disposable goods are being reclaimed by recycling companies long before they reach the landfill.

“Smart Trash” may be a few years in the future, but the technology—the ubiquitous barcode—has been around for decades, says ISyE’s Valerie Thomas. Thomas is developing a prototype of a recycling bin equipped with

a bar-code reader. The reader would capture details about the “trashed” items, store that information in a central database, and make the database available to potential recycling companies who could assess the value of the various components and make arrangements to pick up, purchase, and resell your trash. The Smart Trash concept is only one of numerous faculty projects devoted to the broad category of sustainability: recycling, decreasing energy use, and even reverse engineering to lessen products’ life cycle impact on the environment. Among other projects, Thomas is also working on energy efficiency in housing with the City of Atlanta Office of Sustainability and on projects related to biofuels, electric vehicles and wind power with several other Georgia Tech colleagues. “Most of my efforts on Smart Trash involve shepherding along concepts,” she says. “But we already have the technology for this idea, such as using barcodes for Smart Trash recycling—and at the implementation level, it’s just another app; it’s really not that hard to do.”

This article was written by Faye Goolrick and first appeared in the 2012 edition of the ISyE Alumni Magazine.