Paper on M. Eng. Canadian Rail Project Published in Special IEEE Transportation Issue
The IEEE Computer Society journal IEEE Intelligent Systems has published a paper, IT Strategies for Increased Rail Employee Satisfaction, that summarizes the Master of Engineering(M.Eng.) project of a recent M.Eng. team. Under the direction of Professor Peter Jackson, the team composed of Yanbin Chen, Ramin Farhangi, Alexander Xiang Li, David A. Pilo Mansion, Evan Markel and Ryan Morris, developed a bidding model and evaluated assignment strategies.
The project was carried out under the auspices of SAP and Axon on behalf of their client, Canadian National Railway (CN). Axon employee Andrew Schwartz, ORIE '89 M.Eng. '92, was working on a CN SAP project, saw the opportunity and brought the project to ORIE. The team was assisted by Len Podgurny and Al Randall, CN system managers for Crew Management Solutions in Montreal and Edmonton, Canada and by SAP Labs vice president of research Paul Hofmann. CN provided a dataset relating to a subset of 300 employees in the Edmonton area.
Each week, 7500 CN employees are able to submit bid cards in response to bulletins that describe available jobs and their requirements in a "bids and bulletins." The legacy COBOL software system that currently assigns the jobs is slow, requires manual overrides, and will be phased out during the phased implementation of SAP enterprise systems at CN. The students were asked to take a fresh look at the bids and bulletins system to find finds to leverage information technology to improve operations and increase employee satisfaction.
The team constructed a model to simulate employees' bidding on jobs, incorporating several attributes of jobs and a utility function representing employee preferences. The simulated bids appeared to replicate the patterns shown in the actual bids, and the utility values assigned to jobs suggested that each employee could group jobs into 'buckets' among which they were indifferent. Combining this with an employee's listing of 'buddies' with whom the employee would like to work led to a 'buckets and buddies' strategy.
The team also investigated a strategy in which crews traveling in opposite directions could meet at a halfway point and swap jobs, thereby getting home earlier. The tentative conclusion was that there are opportunities for such a "meet and greet" strategy but that it would have to adapt to the dynamics of an evolving schedule.
Finally, the team reviewed the current job assignment algorithm and reimplemented it in Java, reducing the computation time to just a few seconds for the Edmonton subset. They also recast the problem in a modular fashion to make it easier to design and implement new algorithms, and tested two new algorithms using this modular approach.
According to the paper, "CN management learned several lessons from the study, including the value of reducing nights away from home, the potential of "buckets and buddies" to increase employee satisfaction, the opportunities and difficulties of the "meet and greet" approach, and the value of an "architectural" approach to the job assignment problem.
SAP's Hofmann noted that "SAP's Sponsored Academic Research PRogram identifies future trends and helps bring new innovative technologies to SAP products. The Program sponsors projects and classes at top US Universities and supports research conferences worldwide."
“The Sponsored Academic Research Program is mutually beneficial for SAP and the participating universities,” said Dr. Ike Nassi, executive vice president, Head of Research, Americas and China, and Global Incubation, SAP. “Through projects like that with Canadian Rail and Cornell, universities are provided a forum to discuss the latest in cutting-edge technologies with an experienced vendor – and SAP gains not only valuable insight into upcoming trends, but often immediate impact with our customers and in our products and services.”
Team member and ORIE M.Eng. graduate Ramin Fahangi is now an associate with Boston Consulting Group. Alexander Xiang Li is a software engineer at MicroStrategy. David A. Pilo Mansion is a program manager for Microsoft, working on the Microsoft PerformancePoint Server product, "one of the key offerings in the Microsoft Business Intelligence strategy," he reports. "Because of the 'hands-on' nature of the project, I was exposed to the use of Operations Research techniques in order to deliver tangible and practical results for a company," Pilo Mansion adds.
Ryan Morris is the founder and CEO of VideoNote LLC, an Ithaca company that provides video transcripts of lectures and makes them available to students in a convenient form that also provides feedback to the lecturer who has agreed to participate in the service. Evan Markel recently moved to New York City, where he is looking for employment in a difficult labor market.
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