Understanding the Problem at Hand

Throughout this past semester I have had the honor of participating in the Information Systems & Operations Practicum course here at the University of Illinois. This course has given me a unique and valuable experience by working closely with a real client on a relevant project. Our group was paired with a large cable distribution company and was tasked with a simple objective: to come up with an algorithm that would optimize their current cable cutting process. And thus, my team and I were plunged into the peculiar yet exciting role of an external consultant.

Though the objective seemed simple, as my team started to learn more about the company, talked to stakeholders, and even visited a distribution center, the problem grew more complicated. Information would change, seemingly rigid company policies would turn out to be more fluid, and unforeseen problems would emerge. This brought us to one of our most important revelations: in the real world, all necessary information is not given. As my team can attest, perhaps a majority of our time on this project was not spent actually solving the problem but rather defining it and iterating upon the work that we have already done. It took us a while to find the necessary people to answer our questions, get the data we need, and find ways to implement the solutions we saw viable. Thankfully through the help of faculty mentors and the cooperation of the company we were able to make progress. However, even despite the assistance received, a fair portion of this project was left in uncharted territory where my team and I had to research the problem further and draw conclusions on our own.

As we progressed further and further into uncovering what the problem really was, we had settled on an algorithm called the cutting stock problem. My team and I knew more or less nothing about algorithms yet had to look on our own to try and find some sort of code or program that would allow us to simulate this algorithm on the data we had been given from the company. Eventually we were able to find a basic program that would perform the analysis we desired however we quickly realized we would need to limit our scope yet again as running all the data we had wouldn’t be feasible. That brought in the other bulk of our analysis which was to quantify the cost of the cable being scrapped and to decide which specific cable types should be analyzed. We had decided to go after the cables that were contributing the most money being lost by the company. After multiple weeks working with the data, we had performed several different analyses on it and worked to uncover what we think this might all be costing the company. This brought us to another important idea: we must truly understand the information we have been given. Through countless excel mishaps and attempts to ensure the robustness of our analysis we were eventually able to quantify the total cost of all cable being scrapped, find the top cables that were responsible for these high costs, run these top cables through the cutting stock problem, and show the improvement in terms of USD that utilizing this algorithm would achieve. Somehow, we had reached a conclusion.  

Looking back, I am frankly surprised at all that my team and I have accomplished. All four of us went into this project with a very minimal background in operations management let alone any knowledge about the cutting stock problem yet, through our perseverance and hard work, we were able to achieve a viable solution and more importantly a solution that the company was impressed with. I am sincerely thankful to have been given this opportunity to be in this class and work on this project. I have learned a great deal about working with a team as well as the effort that goes into problem solving whether it be defining the problem or ensuring you are understanding it. This was ultimately a valuable experience overall and one that has changed me for the better.