The beauty of Operations Research

Siza Toro
14 januari 2019

2019 barely kicked off and most students, including myself, find themselves in the midst of battle against a known opponent called operational research (OR). Discussing this subject with other students we find that most students describe OR as a little bit boring and easy. As a second-year student, most of us have encountered and defeated more difficult subjects. For instance, probability theory and statistics one, two and three. To keep things interesting, I would rather like to shed light on the beauty of OR. After all, the bachelor is known by Econometrics and Operational Research.

For those who took the introductory class it might be not a new story knowing about the origin of OR. But for those who haven’t heard about the origin this might be interesting. The first formal activities of OR were initiated in England during World War II, when a team of British scientists set out to assess the best utilization of war materiel based on scientific principles rather than on ad hoc rules. After the war, the ideas advanced in military operations were adapted to improve efficiency and productivity in the civilian sector. OR is all about mathematical modeling, feasible solutions, optimization, and iterative algorithmic computations. And though it might seem to most students that OR is simply repeating, for instance the simplex method, a lot of times to solve problems, I ensure that it is more than that. OR applications can be found in a lot of a fields such as production planning, tourism, transportation, airlines, health care, distribution, medical tests and sports.

If we were to take a closer look at one of these applications, for instance production planning, one might appreciate OR a little bit more. In the next example, I will not be going into much mathematical detail, to keep things light hearted. It is rather an example of the usefulness of OR.

Biological heart valves are bio prostheses manufactured from porcine hearts for human implantation. Replacement valves needed by the human population come in different sizes. On the supply side, porcine hearts cannot be “produced” to specific sizes. Moreover, the exact size of a manufactured valve cannot be determined until the biological component of the pig heart has been processed. As a result, some needed sizes may be overstocked, and others may be understocked.

Raw hearts are provided by several suppliers in six to eight sizes, usually in different proportions depending on how the animals are raised. The distribution of sizes in each shipment is expressed in the form of a histogram. Porcine specialists work with suppliers to ensure distribution stability as much as possible. In this manner, the manufacturer can have a reasonably reliable estimate of the number of units of each size in each shipment. The selection of the mix of suppliers and the size of their shipments is thus crucial in reducing mismatches between supply and demand.

In this example the model seeks to determine the amount from each supplier that will minimize the total cost of purchasing and processing subject to demand and supply restrictions. Sure, the mathematics behind this application may get exhaustingly complicated or even boring, but if one takes a step back and takes a look at the outcome, one might appreciate the beauty this example, because it can contribute in overcoming heart diseases or issues. And much like this example there are a lot of other examples where OR-techniques are used to lend a helping hand towards humanity. And I would argue that is where the strength and beauty of OR lies.