Engineering and physical plant partner to keep campus clean


By Camden Tofil and Miranda Buckheit

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought in-person classes at Penn State to a halt, as the semester moved remote after spring break for the remainder of the academic year.

On June 14, Penn State announced students would return to its 24 campuses for the 2020 fall semester as part of the University’s “Back to State” plan.

The plan’s main focus centered around the safety of students and employees on and off campus. With more than 45,000 students and more than 220 buildings at the Penn State University Park campus alone, keeping facilities and classrooms as clean and safe as possible for use throughout the entire semester was vital.

Penn State Service Enterprise Engineering Initiative (SEE360) teamed up with the University’s Office of the Physical Plant (OPP) to create a case study and the most effective way for that team to allocate resources and 400 staff across three shifts to clean buildings around the campus in compliance with the COVID-19 protocols.

Industrial engineering graduate students Kai-Wen Tien and Hyunjong Shin worked with Vittal Prabhu, professor of industrial engineering and Charles and Enid Schneider Faculty Chair in Service Enterprise Engineering. The trio partnered with Phillip Melnick, Penn State senior director of building and grounds, and his colleagues in OPP to create an optimization model.

“This was great experience for me, as this was the largest project that I’ve ever made and needed to solve it,” Tien said. “They [OPP staff] were really kind and good to work with. They provided me information and data in a timely matter.”

OPP provides surface sanitization, cleaning and general campus maintenance services on a daily basis. Keeping campus buildings sanitized and as safe as possible for faculty, staff and students is now one of the most important services it provides. New guidelines regarding the COVID-19 pandemic required all classrooms to be sanitized five times a week.

Typically, these tasks require about 10,000 hours of work. This, coupled with operational business constraints such as assigning a task to a staff with the right skill level, having the desired number of staff per shift and minimizing travel between buildings posed a complex workforce scheduling and decision-making challenge.

Tien, Shin and Prabhu worked with OPP to formulate this as a mathematical optimization problem and used commercial software to come up with solutions.

“OPP is a large organization and we have to do our best to be effective, timely and safe,” Melnick said. “This was a short-fuse problem that we were able to solve by partnering with engineers in SEE 360.”

OPP implemented new measures to keep buildings and classrooms as clean and sanitized as possible by spending more than 10,000 labor hours cleaning buildings with over 400 staff. In addition to cleaning and sanitizing classrooms in the 11 buildings, the OPP staff members also cleaned the floors, restrooms, frequently touched surfaces like door hardware and more.

With these new resource allocations, OPP aimed to meet three different constraints — completing all tasks before the end of the third shift, completing all tasks once a shift due to available equipment and limiting how far staff members can travel to complete each of their tasks.

“The pandemic has created an additional layer of complexity to our scheduling processes,” Melnick said. “The new sanitization requirement initially complicated scheduling, but with this system, we are able to easily determine the safest protocols to keep staff distanced, buildings clean and our Penn State family safe.”

Since the University moved to remote learning for the last weeks of the 2020 fall semester, the hope is that the plan created by SEE and OPP to efficiently clean and sanitize classrooms will remain effective in February when students return to the University Park campus.

A small portion of the project was converted into a case study for industrial engineering students in undergraduate courses during fall 2020. Prabhu hopes that by showcasing real-world examples, students are able to apply what they learn in their courses to service systems applications and further understand how engineers can contribute to COVID-19 relief.


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