Over the weekend I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about two subjects that don’t normally come up in the same conversation: chocolate and operations research.
Everyone knows about chocolate and many of us enjoy it as a tasty treat whenever we can. However, when I refer to operations research (OR) in a social setting, I’m often greeted with a blank stare or that, “how quickly can I change the subject” look. The WSJ article did a nice job of showing how OR can be important in our daily lives, at least for those of us who love chocolate. From the peanut-filled chocolate referenced in the article to soft drinks, fresh produce, building supplies and just about anything on the brick-and-mortar or virtual shelves, OR increasingly plays a role in keeping it in stock at the lowest total cost.
I have been using many operations research tools during my 11 years at Profit Point and for close to 20 years before that at Rohm and Haas. The capabilities and frequency of use of OR have evolved quite a bit over that period. Computers have become more powerful; more data is available, and more schools are offering course work at the undergraduate level. The models I can solve today on my laptop in 10 minutes or less used to require hours on a mainframe, if they could be solved at all. We used to be happy to solve problems with highly-aggregated product families shipped to regions at an average cost. Now, we’re able to solve many problems at the SKU/Ship-to address level of detail. All indications are that this trend will continue with machine-readable data becoming more available with the iOT and with computers gaining in power and memory.
As operations research tools and techniques become more and more prevalent in the supply chains that we encounter every day, maybe I should use something sweet to help my friends understand why it matters to them.