The snow day at Penn State may just have become more rare, 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," said Goel. "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, for short, which is fitting to be used at the home of the Nittany Lions.
Not only were his classmates and advisor, Professor and Director of the Service Enterprise Engineering Initiative Vittal Prabhu, impressed. Goel's program also got the attention of Penn State President Eric Barron for the potential time and cost savings to the university.
"The development of this software by an engineering student can have a great deal of impact," said Barron. "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." Since 2010, the University Park campus has been shut down just three full days due to snowfall.
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 was available to answer any questions Goel had about the snow-removal process at the university.
"Growing up in India and living there all of my life, this whole issue of snow and enough snow falling that it was a safety concern—as well as a concern for a university to operate as expected—was foreign to me," Goel said. "Nadine's immense knowledge and experience was instrumental in shaping this project."
Davitt 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," she said. "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."
While ROARS was under development for much of last year's snow season, it was tested during the last snowfall experienced by the Central Pennsylvania region.
"I expect to use ROARS as a tool to assist in decision-making this year," said Davitt. "For the first time, we will be able to use real-time information to determine the start time and expected finish time to completely remove the snow, and will be ready to pair the right-sized equipment to the area being plowed."
If the forecast changes, the program can be run again to compensate for the variability of the forecasted snowfall amount versus the actual amount of precipitation that accumulates.
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," he said. "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 also landed Goel a full-time job for a consulting firm in Atlanta, which he started in May.
"I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work on this real-world problem at Penn State," he said. "The courses I had in programming, supply chain engineering, and distributed systems and control all came together in solving this one problem that the campus faces every year.
"It is very exciting to have been able to help improve a tangible service for the community and to see the positive impact my education has had on the university," Goel said.
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