Ant behavior a hill of a study for Wayne State professor

By: Eric Czarnik | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published February 19, 2013

WEST BLOOMFIELD — A Wayne State University professor recently took an ant’s-eye view of how corporations and other large organizations can work more efficiently.

Kai Yang, of West Bloomfield, who specializes in industrial and systems engineering, recently completed his study on ant colony optimization and overlapped product development.

As part of the study, Yang and his associates studied algorithms based on ant behavior. Then they crafted a math-based model to predict the most advantageous balance between product development task time and the time it takes to exchange information among members and teams.

The researchers say their conclusions could slash product definition time by 30-50 percent. Yang said he thinks the average business owner should pay attention.

“I think the balancing of communication and the job done is a valid question anywhere in any organization,” he said. “I think, in principle, people can benefit.”

Yang and his fellow researchers didn’t actually study an ant farm to learn about people groups. Instead, they relied on computer path-finding algorithms, known as ant colony optimization.

According to Yang, these optimization models are based on the insects’ thought patterns to find food. In real life, the ants leave behind pheromones that other ants pick up, which offer hints on the best path for success, he said.

“They can learn from the predecessors — the ants who tried out and failed,” he said. “Finally, they can find a better path, moving from one place to another.”

Yang said this model helps solve a critical question that many businesses and groups face: How much should a group communicate to get a project done? Poor communication from the top can cause people lower in the hierarchy to stumble, but too much talking can waste time and resources.

He said the study explores the effectiveness of concurrent engineering — letting different segments of a group complete their own goals simultaneously instead of having to wait for one group to finish before another can start.

“We have a method which leads to this sweet-spot, if we understand the problem and really have the right formulation set up,” he said.

Yang did the study with Wayne State research assistant Satish Tyagi and the University of Iowa’s Anoop Verma. It was recently published in a 2013 issue of the International Journal of Production Research.

Julie O’Connor, director of research communications at Wayne State, said her university spends around $259 million on research on a broad range of topics, including engineering and the sciences.

“We’re sort of known as the epicenter of a transformation of creating a new economy through our research efforts,” she said. “Our faculty at Wayne State is very engaged in an effort to create a better future for Michigan and beyond.”

Learn more about Wayne State University at