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Ford drives scheduling with artificial intelligence

Sharon Gaudin | Feb. 5, 2015
Automaker relieves burden of scheduling worker assignments with AI software.

Simply put, it became a logistical nightmare.

To help, in the mid-2000s, Ford began using an automated tool from Frontline Systems Inc. The tool works with Microsoft Excel to help solve simple equations in the spreadsheet.

That was enough when the Ford College Graduate Program was small, but the company soon outgrew its abilities.

The Excel tool could deal with about 8,000 unknowns - program participants, jobs and preferences. By about 2011, Ford's program had about 10,000 unknowns.

Then in 2011, Ford hired Kinnaird-Heether and he entered its College Graduate Program for the IT department.

Kinnaird-Heether finds an answer
As a member of the program trying to get the job assignments he wanted, Kinnaird-Heether noticed the problem and -- with a masters degree in computer science, specializing in AI -- he explained how he could solve their scheduling issue with artificial intelligence.

Writing about 10,000 lines of code and spending about 20 hours programming, he built an AI tool for his new employer.

Kinnaird-Heether explained it wasn't a tough programming challenge. He used the Kuhn-Munkres algorithm, which also is known as the Hungarian algorithm; it's designed to solve assignment problems.

"The algorithm considers different potential assignments," he explained. "We take [a workers' job assignment] position rankings, and then apply seniority and then use the algorithm to maximize the potential assignments."

AI has been around for decades and companies are looking at it as something more than a tool for robotics or a sci-fi plot line, according to Jeff Kagan, an independent technology analyst.

"AI is very helpful because it lets us easily do things that were very difficult, if not impossible, before," he said. "One example of success with AI is with scheduling at companies. This has traditionally been a very difficult task. However, the ability for computers to quickly sort through mountains of information and think about the best way to create order, is perfect for this task."

The artificial intelligence software not only worked for the Ford College Graduate Program -- it's now in its fourth year of use -- the company now uses it in four different programs, including scheduling assignments for the IT intern group.

"I've tried to find other things I can solve with it," said Kinnaird-Heether. "The way we designed it, I wanted it to be flexible enough to stand the test of time. I tried to make it as modular as possible, [so] if it needed to be replaced, it wouldn't affect any of the processes it was associated with. But I also tried to build it so it doesn't need to be replaced in the near future. It's not an easy task to do and I try not to make more work."


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