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Penn State Smeal’s Bansal recognized with Wagner Prize

December 10, 2020

By MELISSA MANNO

UNIVERSITY PARK — Saurabh Bansal, an associate professor of supply chain management in the Penn State Smeal College of Business, has been awarded the 2020 Daniel H. Wagner Prize for Excellence in the Practice of Advanced Analytics and Operations Research by the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS).

Saurabh and his research partners from The University of Texas at Austin and the University of British Colombia were recognized for their project, “Distribution Estimation and Efficient Optimization for Portfolio Management in Agribusiness: Analytical Developments and Benefits. 

INFORMS, the leading association for operations research and analytics academicians and professionals, publishes top journals in marketing, supply chain management and optimization. It adjudges the Wagner Prize every year to a technical development with significant milestones to academic theory building along with immediate impact on practice. 

“It is a great honor to be recognized by the Wagner Prize,” Bansal said. “The award attracts applications from all over the world and the winner is selected after multiple rounds of evaluation.” 

Other entries in the competition this year included research projects on optimization of schedules of an Argentinian professional soccer league, optimization of electric bus networks in Amsterdam and driver positioning for ridesharing platforms in the U.S. 

Bansal’s research, which was done in collaboration with Dow AgroSciences, intended to increase efficiency in agribusiness portfolio planning by providing long-term solutions in the commercial seed business. Dow AgroSciences sells a large assortment of seeds to various farmers based on where they are located in the U.S. 

“This market is competitive, so these companies not only need to provide all these varieties of seeds, but they also need to replace the seeds with better varieties on an annual basis,” Bansal said. “As a result, the company faces challenges in figuring out which new potential varieties have the highest potential. The company relies extensively on the judgments of a yield expert for this selection process.” 

A major challenge in this process, Bansal said, is to exploit the expert’s judgment yet do it in a scientific manner. His team’s research aimed to “find a mathematical structure to quantify the way an expert provides judgment and assigns a rank order of the seeds.” 

Bansal said the second dimension of the research is “a tradeoff present at the heart of supply chain optimization,” explaining how seed companies must make critical decisions about how much area of land to use for producing each variety of seed. 

“If they use a huge area of land, they produce more seeds than they need and the seeds are perishable, so they invest all this money into seeds with no use,” Bansal said. “But if they use too little land, then they may run into a shortage so they must find the right optimal acreage or capacity to produce each one of the seed varieties they have.”

Bansal and his team’s project aimed to solve these issues by creating a decision support system for Dow AgroSciences managers. According to INFORMS, “through better candidate seed selection in R&D, better acreage allocation, and less wasteful usage of parent seeds, the company’s seed corn division saw an incredible 6.6% increase in annual profit.” 

“This research is interdisciplinary – it draws from and makes contributions to the theory of decision analysis, statistics, and optimization,” Bansal said. “Working on the interdisciplinary aspect was a lot of fun. It was interesting to see how these different fields provide a complementary set of tools to solve real world problems.” 

Bansal said he owes the Smeal College of Business credit for the project’s success, as he met his first research contact through the college when a Dow AgroSciences recruiter asked to talk to his classroom and the two struck a conversation afterwards that initiated the project. 

Two years later, Bansal said Smeal provided him the ability to travel back and forth from the Dow AgroSciences headquarters and the Supply Chain Research Center provided funding for him to make trips for his research. 

“This project is an example of our commitment at Smeal to do research work that is rigorous but also has an impact on the world,” Bansal said. “Food production is one of those areas that’s getting more attention because the population is rising and the land available for agriculture is decreasing. We can have a significant impact on these areas by using analytics to improve the decision-making process.” 

Bansal’s collaborators are Genaro J. Gutierrez at The University of Texas at Austin; Mahesh Nagarajan at the University of British Columbia; and Mohd Tanveer, Sue Gentry, and J.D. Williams at Dow. 

Bansal joined the Smeal faculty in 2010. He was recently recognized on Poets and Quants’ 2020 Best Under 40 Professors list.

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