Where others see hopelessly foundering logistics, Xin Wang sees the possibility of creating sustainable and resilient systems for things like developing biofuels and keeping cities operating when disaster strikes.
Wang, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering and an affiliate of the new Grainger Institute for Engineering, brings an interdisciplinary approach to solving these large-scale problems.
“This is a very exciting opportunity,” says Wang. “My focus and background is interdisciplinary. I plan to collaborate with colleagues in the Grainger Institute, those in industrial engineering and other departments.”
When Wang was a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his research—mainly funded by the National Science Foundation—honed in on the creation of biofuels, which is wrought with competing factors and uncertainty.
For example, Wang developed mathematical models to examine ways in which the government can better design policies to answer challenging questions in the development of corn-based and other cellulosic biofuels, such as how to maintain food security and develop new energy sources in ways that are environmentally sustainable.
“Our framework can be applied successfully to solve issues when there are competition, reliability and interdependence issues,” he says.
To validate his research, Wang employed a multi-user, web-based simulation game in which players assumed the roles of various stakeholders who make individual decisions on use of farmland, biofuel investments and government mandates and subsidies.
“This software can help us collect data that simulates reality, and help show how various decisions by stakeholders affect the entire system,” Wang says. “We have to consider not only the economic impact, but the social and environmental impacts. That will help develop the biofuel industry in a sustainable way.”
Wang says the model can be applied to a variety of complex systems, such as infrastructure or manufacturing systems. Recently, Wang began working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use the mathematical model to analyze the reliability of urban systems.
Specifically, Wang researches how the government plans to protect critical urban infrastructure. He hopes the research will help the government evaluate adverse impacts and enhance preparedness and reliability of key urban systems.
During a natural or man-made disaster, Wang says events may cascade—causing a potentially disastrous effect. Some of the effects hit the physical infrastructure and some affect the supply of resources.
For example, a power outage could cause electricity-dependent water systems to shut down. In turn, people might travel to seek water, pinching fuel supplies and resulting in gridlocked traffic.
“When you consider the problem at first, it may not seem complicated, but when you factor in people’s behavior, it can become significant and disaster could happen,” Wang says. “If the disruption caused by people’s behavior is at a critical infrastructure, it may amplify the disruption.”
The research will help the government know the social impact of infrastructure breakdowns and respond accordingly.
“We hope to tell, based on the infrastructure disruption, what is the social impact? Then the government can have an idea about the reliability of a city and which infrastructure is the most critical to protect,” Wang says.
Inherent in Wang’s research is a depth of knowledge in logistics systems and supply chain management, key components in advanced manufacturing, one of the focuses of the Grainger Institute. The institute, created in 2014 with a $25 million gift from The Grainger Foundation, serves as an incubator for transdisciplinary research.
“Advanced manufacturing is not only using the innovative technology to improve production,” says Wang. “But it also needs to use successful management methodologies to enhance supply chain efficiency and reduce supply uncertainty or energy usage and environmental impact.”