Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Operation Everything

Operations Research Emerges

In World War II, scientists from a wide range of fields attacked military problems with a potent combination of empiricism and mathematical models. When airplanes came back riddled with holes from enemy attacks, for instance, the intuitive response was to reinforce the armor where the holes were. But, noted the scientists, those were the planes that made it back. They didn't need more armor where they were hit. The real challenge was to figure out the places that had been hit in the planes that went down.

"It was a lively, informal, paradoxical exchange of ideas between amateur and professional war makers and it produced some brilliant successes," wrote James R. Newman in "The World of Mathematics," published in 1956, which cited O.R.'s role in simplifying supply lines, providing a quantitative basis for weapons evaluation, and so on.


In the 1990s, the data became available. Now corporate information technology systems collect unprecedented amounts of data -- on costs, sales, and inventories, in itemized detail and real time. Wal-Mart and Procter & Gamble, for instance, know exactly how many 200-ounce bottles of liquid Tide Free have sold in which stores today. That information in turn determines how many new bottles are shipped from which warehouse tomorrow.