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History of Operations Research in the Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan

 December 18, 2018

 Early 20th century pioneers in industrial engineering laid the foundation for the development of a Department of Industrial Engineering at the University of Michigan (U-M) in 1955, later names the Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering (IOE). During World War II the importance of using mathematics to enhance strategic and tactical planning became recognized as the new field of Operations Research (OR), which quickly became an intellectual pillar of the department.

Operations Research was introduced in the U-M Industrial Engineering curriculum in 1957 with the inclusion of several undergraduate and graduate courses taught by Robert M. Thrall, a professor with joint appointments in the Mathematics and IE departments, Merrill Flood and Richard C. Wilson. What follows is a partial accounting of people that made contributions to the growth of the IE department

The 1960s

The department felt the effects of post-war changes to the U-M College of Engineering. In the 1960s, U-M Industrial Engineering grew significantly in enrollments and new research programs. The department’s emphasis was on undertaking high-quality theoretical work.

Robert M. Thrall taught courses in mathematical programming (linear and nonlinear programming, and integer programming), along with some other faculty members in the Mathematics Department, and W. Allen Spivey of the Business school.

Ralph Disney taught courses in stochastic processes, and in 1968 Steve Kimbleton was hired to teach in the same area.

Herbert Galliher was hired in 1963 from The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and one of the founders of the field of OR. Galliher was a U-M IE faculty member from 1963 to 1982 and taught and developed courses in inventory and production analysis. He completed research in Stochastic Processes, studying applications of OR in airport operations management.

Walton Hancock, IE department chair from 1963 to 1968, worked on the applications of OR to problems such as patient scheduling and hospital staffing in the U-M Hospital. He also worked with Richard C. Wilson in the auto industry to find solutions to facility layout, production planning, and scheduling problems.

Richard Wilson, who had begun his academic career at U-M as an instructor in 1956, was promoted to professor in 1961. Wilson brought expertise in providing useful solutions to complex analytical models related to facility layout, production planning, and production scheduling. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he led the way in the use of early digital computers to solve scheduling and logistic problems in manufacturing.

Seth Bonder was a pioneer in the applications of OR for system-wide optimization in military operations and joined U-M IE in 1965. As a former US Air Force pilot, Bonder used this experience and his education to become a major leader in the use of OR methods to solve complex and large-scale military problems. In 1972, Bonder left the department to establish one of the most successful military OR consulting companies in the U.S.

U-M IE hired Katta G. Murty as an Assistant Professor in 1968, to take over the teaching of courses in mathematical programming from Thrall. Murty had a deep understanding of and commitment to furthering the development of linear and nonlinear optimization methods and algorithms. His books have been used as the basis for teaching optimization methods and applications around the world. He also worked on many applications of OR over the course of his career.

Stephen M. Pollock joined the IE department in 1969. His PhD from MIT provided him with a deep understanding and background in a variety of empirical and probabilistic-based operations research methodologies. He used these insights to collaborate with many other faculty members in solving problems related to public systems, manufacturing, sporting events and many others.

The 1970s

U-M Industrial Engineering retained its size but went through some organizational changes: a broadening of the curriculum, the offering of master’s degree programs in Flint, and a name change to Industrial and Operations Engineering (IOE).

U-M IOE was at the center of America’s Auto Industry, and near the U-M Hospital, two geographic factors that influenced research in the department. IOE faculty were frequently involved in research collaboration and consulting projects focused on challenging OR applications in industrial and healthcare operations.

Recognition of the importance of applications of OR in addition to theoretical research was a key factor when the faculty voted in 1972 to change the name of the department from “Department of Industrial Engineering” to “Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering (IOE).”

In the early 1970s, Seth Bonder created a seminar course in which students were asked to develop models of poorly specified but real “operational situations” – the course was later led by Stephen Pollock who had collaborated with Bonder on it for many years. The goal was not to create “solutions” to problems, but to understand the process by which the mathematical representation of these operational situations could be formulated, simplified, tested and exposited, and used in practice and transferred to other practitioners.  This course evolved into what is now called the “modeling studio” and has served as the basis for similar courses throughout the country.

By the end of the 1970s, the department ranked in the top two of 50 IOE programs in the country, a position it has continued to hold since then.

The 1980s

During the 1980s the department continued to grow in both the number of faculty and the number of students. An average of about 19 full-time faculty members and about 360 undergraduate and graduate students made it one of the larger industrial engineering departments in the country.

The OR faculty group within U-M IOE expanded in the 1980s with the hiring of several new OR-oriented faculty members including the folllowing.

James C. Bean was hired by IOE in 1980 after completing his PhD in operations research at Stanford University. He taught several courses in the operations research area and became well known for his research on genetic algorithms for highly constrained problems and system sustainability modeling.

Robert L. Smith was hired in 1980 after receiving his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley. His research and teaching focused on theory of dynamic programming and modeling stochastic processes related to communications, traffic routing and vehicle manufacturing.

John R. Birge was hired in 1980 after completing his PhD at Stanford University. Birge established himself as an expert and scholar in the development and use of stochastic programming and large-scale optimization to solve a variety of problems in finance, electrical power distribution, health care, and vehicle manufacturing.

Romesh Saigal joined IOE in 1986 after receiving his PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 1968. Saigal teaches courses in continuous optimization, linear programming, and financial engineering. His research includes understanding risk in operational settings within the application areas of transportation, health care, and finance.

OR faculty members established that their OR methods could be applied to resolve a large array of important problems. These included how often car emissions should be tested to meet environmental requirements, the use of Markov decision processes for planning new products, single machine maintenance scheduling based on random breakdowns, the effects of capital budgeting for dealing with risk, and a new method for solving the set partitioning problem.


The 1990s

The 1990s were a period of continual growth and resulted in over 800 students in IOE as well as the hire of new faculty, building of new teaching, meeting, and laboratory spaces.

Realizing the importance of giving students in the Business School and the College of Engineering practical experience in using OR techniques in global operations, Joel D. Tauber, a U-M alumnus, and manufacturing executive from nearby Detroit, gave the university an endowment in 1993 with which to set up an Institute to fill this need. It was named the “Joel D. Tauber Manufacturing Institute.” In 2007, with the support of the Regents of the University of Michigan, the institute was renamed the "Joel D. Tauber Institute for Global Operations" and is a joint venture between the U-M College of Engineering (COE) and the Ross School of Business (RSB). Students in the Tauber Institute are trained in a variety of operations management topics including applications of operations research to supply chain management, facilities planning, new product design, and many others.

Many developments in IOE continued after the turn of the century including growth in the faculty and undergraduate and graduate programs. The continued emphasis on operations research as one of the intellectual pillars of the department has led to a continued legacy of theoretical and applied contributions to the field. To learn more about the current state of IOE please see the department website.


Department Website:


This draft was compiled by Tom Cummins of the IOE Department at University of Michigan. Special thanks to Katta G. Murty, Don B. Chaffin and Stephen M. Pollock for their contributions. This history is based in part on "The First 50 years of the Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering at the University of Michigan: 1955-2005" by Don B. Chaffin and adapted with permission.

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