Jean-François Cordeau: Logistics takes you there

January 8, 2013

Excerpt from HEC Montréal Mag, Fall 2012        

by Jacinthe Tremblay

All roads lead to Rome, they say. On the other hand, some of them will get you there more efficiently, faster and at lower cost. Which ones are they? This thorny question is central to the work done by Jean-François Cordeau, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Logistics and Transportation at HEC Montréal. Meet an exceptional mathematician. 

In 2002, HEC Montréal presented Jean-François with its Young Researcher Award for the remarkable quality of his research since joining the Department of Logistics and Operations Management three years earlier. In 2006, at age 35, he became the youngest holder of a Canada Research Chair at the School. (His appointment has now been renewed until 2016.) Since starting his academic career with HEC Montréal, he has also been a guest professor at the University of Vienna, in Austria, and the University of Bologna, in Italy.

Although people often tend not to think about it, logistics is a major expense for companies. Transportation, warehousing and inventory costs can account for up to 10% of the total cost of a particular item. In the food industry, the figure can be as high as 30%. This means that millions, if not billions, are at stake for large firms, especially those that operate in a number of countries.  

Although he is not one to blow his own horn, Professor Cordeau has helped to make Montreal a centre of excellence in logistics and transportation. He has been Assistant Director of the Interuniversity Research Centre on Enterprise Networks, Logistics and Transportation (CIRRELT) since 2008. The Montreal-based centre, which now enjoys an international reputation, has over seventy regular members, some forty associate members and approximately 400 Master’s and PhD students. He is also a member of GERAD (Group for Research in Decision Analysis), another inter-university centre of expertise of similar size, also based in Montreal.


Routing and networking

Professor Cordeau was initially interested in vehicle routing. The Quebec firm Cascades is one company that has drawn on his mathematical research findings to optimize its recycled paper collection routes for schools and office buildings. He has also collaborated on work to find ways of improving the quality of adapted transportation services for disabled users in the Montreal region. Within CIRRELT, he has been involved in a number of large-scale research projects aimed at optimizing transportation and logistics in the forestry sector. His Chair is still working in this area, along with terminal management. In this field, he has helped devise solutions for ship mooring problems on behalf of the management of the Italian port of Gioia Tauro, one of the largest Mediterranean container-handling centres. “I love research,” he says, “but what I find most satisfying is solving real-life problems.”

More recently, he has been working on installation localization and logistics network design. When the Finnish firm Nokia wanted to revamp its global logistics network and incorporate CO2 emission reduction goals, it called on his expertise. “With globalization, supply, production and distribution operations are often carried out on several continents and use several transportation modes. Goods also cross several time zones and are moved through countries with different currencies and trade legislation. In short, decision makers are facing increasingly complex logistics problems,” he notes. “We always come up with a variety of good solutions to the problems we’re asked to address – then it’s up to the decision makers to choose.”

Professor Cordeau does his best to make life easier for them, though, by using mathematical models and algorithms to come up with solutions offering them precision, flexibility, simplicity and speed.  


A fruitful detour

After earning his BBA with a specialization in Management Sciences from HEC Montréal, Jean-François spent a year studying computer science at the Université de Montréal. That’s when he found his calling. “I became fascinated with vehicle routing when I took a seminar on the Travelling Salesman Problem given by Vašek Chvátal, a Czech researcher who is now a professor at Concordia University,” he says.

The Travelling Salesman Problem seems very simple at first glance. But although he has only 10 customers to visit starting from his home, in fact he has three million possible routes to choose from! While travelling salesmen of yore historically managed to find satisfactory solutions by relying on purely intuitive reasoning, “the size and complexity of modern logistics networks make that sort of approach totally impractical,” stresses Professor Cordeau.

At the same time, he had a fateful encounter with Gilbert Laporte, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Distribution Management, who was also at the seminar. “When he told me that HEC Montréal was launching a new Master’s level option in modelling the next year, I decided to enrol.” From 2001 to 2006, he was associated with Professor Laporte’s Chair. Together, they co-authored more than 50 articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. They also co-directed dozens of Master’s and PhD students, including Gerardo Berbeglia, winner of the Mercure award for the best doctoral thesis in 2010 at the School.

In 2009, along with Federico Pasin, also from the School, and Serge Bisaillon, a CIRRELT analyst, the two researchers took first place in the ROADEF Challenge. That year, the international competition organized by the Société française de recherche opérationnelle et d'aide à la décision focussed on managing disruptions in the aviation industry. The challenge? To design an algorithm capable of producing a new flight schedule, reassigning each aircraft in the fleet and producing a new itinerary for each passenger, or even thousands of passengers – and one that could to it all within 10 minutes. The four members of the Montreal team were the only ones of the nearly thirty teams from 15 countries entered in the competition to successfully come up with timely, quality solutions to three enormous puzzles.

Working together, Cordeau and Laporte had twice taken second place in earlier editions of the competition. On those occasions, they had had to solve problems involving an Earth-observation satellite mission and planning telecommunications technicians’ schedules.

“Jean-François and I make a great team. For our students, we’ve practically become interchangeable. We share the same vision of research. We read the same scientific literature. We arrive pretty quickly at the same approach to solving a problem,” says Canada’s third most influential researcher in the field of management, according to HiBAR, the Hirsch-Index Benchmarking of Academic Research. The first Canadian version of the index was published in The Globe and Mail in April 2012. “Jean-François’ computer science training is more cutting edge than mine, mind you,” jokes Professor Laporte. “I did my PhD 37 years ago. There’s no way I could ever catch up with him!”

In his personal life, Professor Cordeau has found the optimal – even perfect – solution to his own transportation issues: he lives near the School and walks to work. In his spare time, he likes to cycle with his family. He and his wife, Anne Mercier, who also holds a PhD in applied mathematics from the École Polytechnique, are the proud parents of two lovely daughters, Marie and Béatrice. Will they grow up to design algorithms, like their parents? “It’s hard to say,” he laughs. “For the time being, they both play piano and we enjoy being active together as often as possible.”

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