Engineering students get results for local nonprofit

students at Meals on Wheels facility.

Meals on Wheels for WNY Chief Operating Officer Chris Procknal (second from left) with engineering students Prabakar Theivaraaj, Vineet Payyappalli and Jessica Dorismond in the hot meal assembly area at Meals on Wheels for WNY. Photo credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki.

“Our thanks go out to this group of UB engineers for their passion and dedication in helping us optimize our meal pack-out process.”
Chris Procknal
Meals on Wheels

By Michael Andrei

Meals on Wheels for Western New York (WNY) produces and delivers between 5,000 and 6,000 meals a day — including hot and cold meals for a range of medically appropriate diets.

The meals are delivered through a multi-stage process to dozens of sites and, ultimately, 1,800 homes. Home-delivery clients receive a hot meal, cold meal, friendly conversation and well-being check daily.

“Our top priority is delivering a healthy, safe, medically appropriate meal to each client every day — our logistics, operations and workflows are absolutely crucial,” says Meals on Wheels for WNY Chief Operating Officer Chris Procknal.

So when Meals on Wheels was contacted in January by three UB industrial engineering graduate students who wanted to talk about including the organization in a project centered on advanced analytics and organization science, Procknal and other Meals on Wheels executives agreed.

“We called our project ‘Pro Bono Analytics,’” says Vineet Payyappalli, a fourth-year industrial engineering PhD student specializing in operations research. “We are in the student chapter of UB INFORMS — the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science.”

Nationally, INFORMS has a division for pro bono analytics, so the UB graduate students started a plan to do their own project here.

“I went online and went to Yelp, looking at different non-profits, how they were rated and what people had to say,” says Jessica Dorismond, who is also in the fourth year of a PhD program in industrial engineering.

“For Meals on Wheels, deliveries are key to what they do,” she explains.

Payyappalli and Dorismond were joined by Prabakar Theivaraaj on the project’s first phase during this past spring semester. Theivaraaj holds an MS from UB in industrial engineering.

The trio met with members of the Meals on Wheels leadership to learn details about their delivery process, their challenges and to see if there was a way they could help.

The team decided to focus on optimization of the pack-out process for delivering meals. Every Meals on Wheels home-delivery route changes daily, so the counts and daily diet types are in constant flux. There is a strict two-hour safe window between final plating in the commissary and delivery at the last client’s home.

“We have five diets — regular, renal, ground, bland and diabetic — and when each new client comes on we work with their doctor to determine what diet they should have,” Procknal says. “As you can imagine, incorrect deliveries of any meals can have a serious consequence for our clients.”

After a hot meal is sealed at the end of the assembly line, it is checked against a list — sorting the meals against different routes and sites by the recipients’ addresses, ensuring that meals go into the correct ovens for delivery.

Payyappalli’s team found the checklist did not have the different types of meals supplied to clients. The list did have the total quantity for each route and for each car for delivery — but did not have the sub-quantities of the meal categories.

Theivaraaj says analytics conducted over the mid-portion of the semester enabled the UB team to create new lists for consideration by Meals on Wheels for WNY leadership.

“We set them up by order of delivery — as the meals came off the assembly line — as opposed to alphabetically listing the neighborhoods and communities,” Theivaraaj says.

Procknal notes that after a two-week trial with the new pack- out template, “the analytics are a very good fit with our operations systems,” allowing for more accurate tracking that will enable staff and volunteers to serve clients more efficiently.

“The food and friendship we bring to these homebound individuals is absolutely crucial in ensuring that they can live with dignity and independence,” continued Procknal.

“Our thanks go out to this group of UB engineers for their passion and dedication in helping us optimize our meal pack-out process.”

Ann Bisantz, professor and former chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, says that in the department, “We directly connect research with learning and societal impacts. We support student-led, hands-on learning activities,” she says. “Our experiential learning programs help students develop professionalism and a practical perspective by connecting the classroom to the real world.”