What can O.R. do for you?

O.R. Inside Your Car (your healthcare, your post office, ...)

We're all familiar with the way a car plant (and many other factories) works - cars move along a production line and various processes - welding, painting, trim etc - are carried out as they do so. Designing such a plant is a complex business - a lot of different processes and pieces of plant have to be married together, ideally in such a way that every operation takes the same time to perform. (If that's not the case then a bottleneck will occur at the slowest operation, and that will hold up the entire line.) So questions arise like, to avoid creating a bottleneck, should we install three of these robots instead of two?

Things are further complicated by the fact that, once in a while, a piece of plant will break down or there will be a shortage of some component. Such problems can quickly shut down the entire line, unless adequate buffers are provided - storage areas where part finished cars can be 'parked' while the problems are sorted out. This leads to questions such as, where should we provide buffers, and how big should they be?

Because of the complexity of car plants these questions are very difficult to answer, and to help them get good answers manufacturers put some O.R. inside the design of the plant. For example, the O.R. team could build a simulation of the working of the plant, including breakdowns and component shortages, and display the results on a computer screen in the form of an animated diagram of the plant, on which managers can see cars moving along the line and discover where bottlenecks occur, and how quickly the effects of a breakdown spread to other parts of the plant.

The interactive part of a simulation model will enable the plant designers to ask what if? questions. What if we installed three robots instead of two? What if we provided a buffer here? By asking such questions and re-running the model, they can see which design gave the best results.

Simulation modelling has proved such a success that it is now very widely used all over the world and not only in manufacturing plants, but in all kinds of applications. For example, hospitals are using it to help them cope with the sudden surges in admissions that occur from time to time (what if we provided x beds and y nurses?). Banks, post offices and supermarkets use it to help them improve customer service (what if we provided x checkouts, had y cashiers available?). So thanks to simulation modelling there's O.R. inside many of the manufactured products we buy and the services we use.

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