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IE student designs software to optimize snow removal at Penn State

IE student designs software to optimize snow removal at Penn StateIt is well known among the State College and Penn State communities that it takes a lot for university officials to shut the campus down after a major snowfall. In fact, since 2010, the University Park campus has been shut down just three full days due to snowfall. Much to the chagrin of students – and faculty and staff – the snow day at Penn State may just have become even more elusive, thanks to software developed by recent industrial engineering graduate Achal Goel.

Goel, who graduated with a master’s degree in industrial engineering in May, came up with a user-friendly program that cuts snow removal time from the roadways and parking lots on the University Park campus while saving the university money in terms of costs associated with clearing the snow. “Until now, snow-removal operations were done based on the snow-removal equipment that was available at the time and what had worked in the past,” Goel says. “The process didn’t involve any engineering tools or analytical skills, so we wanted to create a software solution that uses real data and methodologies and can effectively decrease the time it takes to clear snow from campus.”

The name of this software? Real-time Optimization for Adaptive Removal of Snow or ROARS, which is fitting to be used at the home of the Nittany Lions.

Goel’s classmates and advisor, Professor Vittal Prabhu, were impressed with the potential time and cost savings to the university, and so was Penn State President Eric Barron. “The development of this software by an engineering student can have a great deal of impact,” Barron says. “Anything that we can do to make the snow removal operations more efficient and more effective will ultimately make our campus safer and that is our priority.”

Vikas Dachepalli, another industrial engineering master’s degree student, did some initial research with Goel on the project before Dachepalli graduated in December 2017.

The calculations within ROARS – which is run through an Excel-based worksheet – are based on the amount of snowfall in inches and the number of snow-removal vehicles the Office of the Physical Plant (OPP) has available to clear the roadways and parking lots at any given time. It also factors in the number of employees who are working during a given shift and the skill level of those employees. The amount of time it takes the software to calculate all of the information in order to optimally allocate available equipment and personnel to plowing areas, and also determine the time it will take to clear the snow, is an astonishing 12 seconds.

OPP is the office that oversees snow removal at Penn State and has three different crews working at the same time to clear snow from roads and parking lots, which was the focus of this project, walkways on campus and building entrances. Nadine Davitt, supervisor of solid waste and labor operations with OPP, was an integral part in the project and is responsible for supervising the staff that removes snow from parking lots and campus roads.

“Our primary challenge with snow removal is getting the snow cleared so the university can open at the normal time while meeting the expectations of the campus community,” Davitt says. “This modeling software Achal developed takes into account the size of the areas to be plowed, any obstacles within that area and the type and size of equipment that is needed to clear that area.” All of this allows the snow marshal, police services and Penn State administrators to better determine if and when to delay or cancel campus operations based on solid data analysis.

Barron said that this type of student engagement fits perfectly into his Invent Penn State initiative. “Invent Penn State is designed to enable students, faculty and staff to take their ideas into the marketplace,” Barron says. “It is wonderful to see a real student participating and solving real-world problems. This not only sets him on a career path that is far better than classroom learning alone, it allows him to take the solution beyond the walls of Penn State and into the marketplace where it can improve service and make an impact on a much larger scale.”

The project helped Goel land a full-time consulting job in Atlanta.

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