Making Complex Systems Work Better

October 09, 1998

Boston, Mass. -- Researchers at Boston University's College of Engineering received funding to develop innovative techniques for managing such complex systems as modern manufacturing facilities, global communication networks, and world-wide economic systems. The new tools, which will draw on advanced computational techniques and today's unprecedented computing power, will also help scientists solve complex problems in computational physics.

The research will be supported by a $1.2 million award from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Knowledge and Distributed Intelligence (KDI) initiative. The initiative seeks to foster interdisciplinary research and "change the way scientists collaborate and the way they prepare to examine the world as they seek new frontiers for discovery," said NSF Director Rita Colwell. Boston University's project is one of just 40 to be funded out of 850 projects submitted.

"Manufacturing today necessitates decision-making in large stochastic systems -- systems that include many random variables," says Michael Caramanis, professor of manufacturing engineering and the project's principal investigator. "In a manufacturing system, the complexity arises from the fact that lots of decisions have to be made involving multiple time scales. They range from decisions about building new plants and ordering new machinery -- which may be made only once in ten years -- to the minute-to-minute decisions made on the production line."

Cellular manufacturing technology, introduced by the Japanese in the 1960s, and widely adopted by American industry is based on small factories, or cells, within a larger factory. "Managing such a process effectively is extremely complex and if you are slow in making the right decisions you may be left with too many outdated, semifinished products in the pipeline, driving up costs," says Caramanis.

"Making the right decisions requires an understanding of the dynamics, or changing requirements of the process, and the time scale of these dynamics is incredibly varied. In addition you must factor in uncertainty -- machine breakdowns, absent workers, changes in the economy," Caramanis continues.

Most businesses rely on a worst-case analysis to deal with problems that arise in an uncertain environment -- generally a costly approach. "The BU team's new computational approaches will enable accurate prediction and flexible, efficient decision support," says Caramanis. "We already have a good indication that the tools we are developing apply directly to problems in computational physics -- like understanding how fluid flows through a rough conduit, and we will be testing how we can apply them in other complex systems. We will also be testing the manufacturing management tools in the factories of our two industrial collaborators, ALCOA and Pratt Whitney."

In addition to Caramanis, the research team includes Christos Cassandras and Yannis Paschalidis, of BU's department of manufacturing engineering; Francis Alexander, Boston University's Center for Computational Science; Dimitri Bertsekas and John Tsitsiklis, MIT's department of electrical engineering and computational science; and Yannis Ioannides, of the Tufts University's economics department.

Boston University

Related Decisions Articles from Brightsurf:

Consumers value difficult decisions over easy choices
In a paper co-authored by Gaurav Jain, an assistant professor of marketing in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer, researchers found that disfluency, or the difficulty for an individual to process a message, increases people's attitudes toward that message after a time delay.

Evolutionary theory of economic decisions
When survival over generations is the end game, researchers say it makes sense to undervalue long shots that could be profitable and overestimate the likelihood of rare bad outcomes.

Decisions made for incapacitated patients often not what families want
Researchers from Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University report in a study published in JAMA Network Open that nearly half of the time medical treatments and orders received for incapacitated patients were not compatible with goals of care requested by their surrogate decision makers.

Which COVID-19 models should we use to make policy decisions?
A new process to harness multiple disease models for outbreak management has been developed by an international team of researchers.

For complex decisions, narrow them down to two
When choosing between multiple alternatives, people usually focus their attention on the two most promising options.

Fungal decisions can affect climate
Research shows fungi may slow climate change by storing more carbon.

How decisions unfold in a zebrafish brain
Researchers were able to track the activity of each neuron in the entire brain of zebrafish larvae and reconstruct the unfolding of neuronal events as the animals repeatedly made 'left or right' choices in a behavioral experiment.

Best of the best: Who makes the most accurate decisions in expert groups?
New method predicts accuracy on the basis of similarity.

How do brains remember decisions?
Mammal brains -- including those of humans -- store and recall impressive amounts of information based on our good and bad decisions and interactions in an ever-changing world.

How we make complex decisions
MIT neuroscientists have identified a brain circuit that helps break complex decisions down into smaller pieces.

Read More: Decisions News and Decisions Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to