MADE IN BELGIUM: Geoffrey De Smet: A Man with a Plan

01-08-2019 -

From a small, academic project to a renowned software solution that is used globally and affects the lives of millions of people: it sounds like a fairy tale. But this is exactly what Belgian developer Geoffrey De Smet and Red Hat Business Optimizer (aka OptaPlanner) made happen. One of the most remarkable qualities of the software De Smet developed is its tremendous versatility. He himself used it to put together the match schedule for a tournament at his local tennis club. A schedule they had been labouring on for weeks, was put together over a lunch break applying the software. Next, a phone operator in the US installed it to optimize the deployment of its technicians. Hoping to save one or two percent in travel time, they ended up with a twenty-five percent reduction , saving hundreds of millions of dollars and heavily reducing CO² emissions in the process.

The very first version of the software came into being in 2006, during an academic challenge meant to optimize the university’s timetable. “I was playing around with optimization algorithms and made nice progress by combining them with JBoss code”, De Smet recalls. “In the following years I further improved the software on my own in my spare time. This continued when I started working as a Java consultant and later Java lead at Schaubroeck, were I supported the development of a local government budget software. In that period more and more developers started using OptaPlanner.

De Smet managed to secure his first customers, including a home for the elderly in France. But the development of the software truly made a huge leap forward when he joined Red Hat in 2010. Today, he is the Business Lead for Business Optimizer - or OptaPlanner - at the company. As such he can count on a community of talented full-time core engineers, hundreds of contributors and the feedback of thousands of users downloading the tool every month.

Every organization has planning issues,” is how De Smet explains the success of his software. “Common sense helps- to some extent in efficiently - deploying available people and resources. Our technology, however, always succeeds to further enhance and optimize the process. And we are not talking about efficiency gains of just a few percent, but rather ten, twenty or even twenty-five percent. This leads to enormous savings in logistics, which result in higher profits and higher productivity…usually being the main goal in the retail and transportation industry. In healthcare environments usage of the software focuses more on employee well-being.

There are also opportunities for society in general to profit from De Smet’s achievements. A government agency carrying out security inspections of bridges for instance will soon start using his software as well. Their intention is not to do the same number of inspections with less engineers, but instead to permit them more time per inspection. This will seriously increase the safety of citizens relying on that infrastructure.

I am constantly amazed by the diversity of our customers”, De Smet says. “All judiciary hearings in the UK are being scheduled with OptaPlanner. At the same time, a hugely popular car rental company in Europe uses the software to solve the puzzle of having the right car available for a customer at the requested time. This can get especially complicated considering they offer customers a choice in pick-up and return-locations. , And then there’s Thyssenkrupp, that implemented OptaPlanner to schedule maintenance of 220,000 elevators and escalators across North America which requires 2,500 technicians. Using the software, they managed to increase the number of completed maintenance jobs from fifty to seventy-five percent per year. Over the next year, they want to further improve that score by aiming to do maintenance on all 220,000 installations within a year.”

In Belgium, we just started working for KAVA, an organisation of more than 1,300 pharmacists”, De Smet continues. “They were struggling to allocate evenings and weekends their members are on call. Putting together such a schedule , you need to not only take into account the distance between the available pharmacists, but also the density of the population in an area. Wanting to be fair, they also needed to take into account members’ vacations and the fact that ‘on call’ duty on public holidays was equally spread. Those are very complicated yet exciting challenges.

When asked whether he is dreaming of even bigger achievements, De Smet does not have to think long: “Air traffic is immensely complex, of course, so we would definitely like to see our technology at work within an airline company or an airport. Staying closer to home and to the ground, we would also love to tackle the challenges of the Belgian railways. I’m pretty sure that will be a hard nut to crack,” he laughs.

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