photo of Siqian Shen

Tackling COVID-19 problems with industrial engineering

Lessons learned from optimizing retail could help optimize our COVID-19 response.

Our campus, like the global community, is contending with COVID-19 and working to adapt to a new normal. Many are rapidly working on solutions. See all COVID-19 developments from University of Michigan Engineering.

3/31 Update: Shen’s operations model cheat sheet has been published.

Original article: The COVID-19 crisis may be unfolding on an unprecedented scale, but to U-M engineering associate professor Siqian Shen, its web of logistical puzzles seems eerily familiar.  Where to put testing centers, which public facilities to close, and how to allocate ICU beds and design medical triage processes are the kinds of problems that industrial operations researchers like her have been solving for decades. She believes models that are saving businesses money today could be used to save lives tomorrow.

“We have a large body of research that has traditionally been used to site retail stores, to optimize inventory and production, to manage stock levels as demand for products varies by season,” said Shen, who is an associate professor of industrial operations and engineering and civil and environmental engineering. “From a mathematical perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic presents a very similar set of challenges but on a much larger scale. The same supply chain management models could be used to solve problems associated with it.”

Shen is taking matters into her own hands to help get the research to those who can use it. In the days and weeks ahead, she’ll be putting together a series of open-access online documents that outline a range of COVID-19 disease intervention and prevention related problems, paired with the industrial operations models and research that could help solve them. She hopes it will speed research, both by connecting challenges with the researchers who can tackle them and by building awareness about the suite of industrial engineering tools that could be used to fight COVID-19.

It’s a low-tech, ad-hoc approach that Shen believes is uniquely suited to a crisis that changes by the hour. Her ultimate goal is to help policymakers and the public make more informed choices about how to respond to the virus and emergency.

“COVID-19 is a global disease, but we’ve seen fatality rates vary widely by country,” she said. “That’s partially due to the different resources available in different places, but it’s also due to how and when decisions are made. There are also vulnerable, underserved groups such as elderly, disabled and low-income populations who may suffer more severely from bad decisions we make. It’s my hope that by more quickly getting information and expertise to where it’s needed, we can give people the resources and information they need to make more informed decisions.”

Shen expects to post her first installment of information by March 23 through a variety of channels, including:

Shen’s personal U-M web page:

Twitter @SiqianS