A constant renewal of ideas

Spring 2008

Industrial-engineering chair builds powerhouse teams.

he emergency-room waiting area at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Burlington County, N.J., showed signs of serious overcrowding. Each day, ı60 patients were flooding into the 35-bed department. Waiting times for those without an urgent need had edged up to 65 minutes. Something clearly needed to be done to reduce the bottleneck of patients.

To find a durable solution, hospital directors tapped the insights of Virtua’s clinical and operations staff. The directors also sought outside expertise to analyze not only the hospital’s existing workflow, but also its patient and staff scheduling, facility layout and staff tools, and organization. The directors partnered with the research group led by Binghamton University Distinguished Professor Krishnaswami “Hari” Srihari, chair of the Department of Systems Science and Industrial Engineering, a choice increasingly made by businesses in industries ranging from health care to electronics to aviation.

To study Virtua’s problem, two of Srihari’s graduate students created a computer-simulation model of the hospital, then tested alternatives in it. Within six months, their recommendations lowered the waiting times for non-urgent patients by 35 percent.

“We’ve gone to other universities, but the level of support that Hari set up is really different,” says Tejas Gandhi ’03, Srihari’s former student and now direc­tor of management engineering at Virtua Health. Thanks to that “difference,” the Marleton, N.J.-based company is giving thought to increasing its funding to Binghamton next year.

Virtua is only one of many businesses that have come to rely on Srihari’s research team. The success of Srihari’s research group, the Watson Institute for Systems Excellence (WISE), is due in part to his model for graduate education, which colleagues say can be matched at only a handful of engineering schools across the country. With a team of 50 students and seven faculty members, WISE’s external research funding has grown exponentially in the past decade, from $630,000 in ı997–98 to $2.ı million expected this year. Its client base now includes electronics lieaders such as Texas Instruments and General Electric.

Over the past five years, Srihari’s focus has broadened significantly from the original mission of Electronics Manufacturing Research and Services (EMRS), which worked primarily on electronics manufacturing. Last summer, he renamed the group to reflect an expanded research domain, which ranges from health care to supply-chain management. “He’s definitely a visionary,” says Balki Iyer MS ’00, director of business development at General Electric’s Stamford, Conn., offices. Since 2002, WISE has been developing electronics packaging for General Electric at its Niskayuna, N.Y., offices, involving Binghamton students in this effort. “He laid out the road map on how Binghamton University can contribute to this industry,” Iyer says.

Integrity at the Heart of Research

LIKE MANY OF HIS STUDENTS from India, Srihari left his native country for graduate school in the United States, which he insists has the best educational system in the world. The son of two doctors, both of whom were also medical professors, Srihari chose to break a new path for himself in engineering.


Srihari has focused WISE on cultivating not just research clients, but also graduate students, whom he believes are at the heart of his work. “The primary reason I think we are here is the graduate student,” Srihari says. “They want to come to Binghamton because they have a unique opportunity to work on research in a collaborative manner with faculty and industry.”

Current and former students describe Srihari as a professor they can call any day of the week — someone who looks out for more than their research output. He typically begins work at home at 5:45 a.m. and ends his day at ı0 p.m. While managing his research group, he regularly checks in with students who work off-site at one of the companies under contract with WISE.

“He’ll call you over the weekend to make sure everything is [fine],” says Shashank Khandekar ’07, who worked on the emergency-room project at Virtua Health and is now a management engineer with the company. “It’s an amazing feeling that the department chair will call you to make sure that you’re all right. I have a lot of friends starting at engineering schools around the country, and none of them have experienced this from their professors.”

The close relationships that Srihari fosters with his students have created a dedicated group of nearly 200 alumni around the world, many of whom turn to him for research help even as they provide job entrées for new Binghamton graduates.

Seshu Desu, dean of the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science, explains that Srihari has mastered the technique of “experiential learning.” Desu notes that engineering research can be accomplished in two ways: conducting research for a company on campus,
or sending the student to the company to work on a particular problem, which is Srihari’s method.

“You’re getting a real problem and you’re interacting within a group, you’re learning communication skills,” Desu says. “What makes a good engineer – students are really experiencing it even before they’re graduating.”

The approach is just as significant for companies, as the influx of students provides a steady infusion of new ideas and a future source of employees. “That constant renewal you get when these students come in while they’re doing their dissertations is very important to us,” says Peter Borgesen, a consortium manager at Unovis Solutions in the city of Binghamton, N.Y., which works with Srihari’s students. “You have young people coming in and asking questions, so you end up renewing yourself. That’s very powerful to an organization.”

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