Today, the science of better. The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
When someone's called an "electrical engineer," we have some
idea of what that person does. Same for "philosopher," "economist," "accountant," and
most other titles. But what on earth is an "operations researcher?" Few people have
even heard of operations research (or OR, as it's often called); yet it could
well become the high-demand career of our new century.
The truly unfortunate name operations research traces to WW-II. Before the war,
systematic mathematical analysis hadn't been applied to the military's operational
problems -- questions like "How to schedule equipment maintenance?" and
"Where to deploy airplanes?" As people addressed those problems they were said to be
"researching military operations." And a name was born.
One application was hunting German U-boats. Allied planes would search out submarines
that'd surfaced for air. Then they'd drop depth charges. Math was applied to determine
angles of attack for airplanes, and the timing and spacing of those charges. The resulting
likelihood of sinking a U-boat, once it was found, rose fourteen-fold -- from three percent
to over forty.
After the war, operations researchers realized that the tools they'd developed applied to
all sorts of problems: streamlining package delivery, improving manufacturing processes,
designing financial asset portfolios. Professional societies formed. The field found
its way into universities and businesses. Even the world of sports benefitted from OR.
It answered questions like "What's the best schedule for a football league?" That's a
tough problem when you think about the many constraints involved.
What differentiates operations research from other forms of engineering is a focus on systems,
rather than components. An electrical engineer might be interested in a new security device
for checking shipping containers at a port. An operations researcher asks where and how
those devices should be deployed to improve overall safety.
Operations researchers have to know the mathematics of optimization and random processes.
They have to be fluent in the use of statistics, simulation, and computer programming.
What's amazing is that these tools can serve so many problems in so many fields. That's
why we find OR scattered throughout different parts of universities. It can be found in
industrial or systems engineering programs. It serves business schools in departments with
words like "decision," "information," or "management science," in their titles.
So the price paid for such enormous usefulness is a lack of identity. Most people who've
been served by OR have never heard of it. That's a poor state of affairs considering the
Our world grows more complex daily. Computer capability and a wealth of data put us in a
better position than ever to handle that complexity. We live in an ideal environment for
people who know the field -- especially if they can communicate as well as they can do the
math. The possibilities are vast for students starting college. That is, of course, for
those who've managed to find out what operations research is.
I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
J. E. Beasley. OR - Notes. Retrieved January 16, 2008.
E. A. Boyd, The Future of Pricing: How Airline Ticket Pricing Has Inspired a Revolution.
(New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007): Ch. 9.
For more information about the field of operations research,
INFORMS, the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, is the
largest professional society of Operations Researcher in the world. For more
information, see http://www.informs.org.