Professor’s Use of Simulation Modeling Approach Leads to Data-Driven Insights

By Sherry DiBari

Behind the scenes, Andrew “Andy” Collins, assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering, is helping you make better decisions.

“My research is about making methods that help make simulations become more accurate,” Collins explained. He uses a simulation modeling approach called agent-based modeling and enriches it with concepts from another modeling approach called game theory – creating a hybrid simulation.

The results are data-driven insights – tools that make decision-support models more accurate and enable us to live more safely and efficiently.

“Better models mean a better understanding of the world around us, and a better understanding of the world around us means we can make better choices in our navigating of the world,” Collins said.

Some models, such as those for traffic flow simulations used in emergency evacuations, save lives in times of disaster. Others help us to be more efficient.

For example, Collins was the principal investigator for a five-year, $5 million grant-funded project working in conjunction with the Ship Maintenance Performance Group of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). His interdisciplinary team developed a series of bootcamps on data analytics, predictive analytics, data modeling, data management, enterprise architecture, and modeling and simulation to teach ship maintenance experts how to parse massive amounts of data and draw understanding from that data.

“The Navy hosts an incredible amount of digital information: everything from personnel and scheduling records to ships’ maintenance logs,” Collins explained. “Using AI and data modeling, that information could be parsed, analyzed and modeled to create more efficient workflows.”

The project, which stemmed from a 2017 U.S. Government Accountability Office report aimed at making U.S. naval shipyards more efficient, was recently recognized with a Navy Excellence Award.

Growing up, Collins was influenced by another naval shipyard – one more than 3,000 miles away. His father was a carpenter for the naval shipyards at Chatham Dockyard in England. When the facility closed, he relocated the family to Edinburgh, Scotland. “It molded me into the person I am today,” Collins said.

The family acclimated to Scotland and thrived. Collins’ mother worked as a barmaid at night and went to school during the day. She eventually became a personal assistant to the chief executive officer of a large healthcare insurance company. “I am very proud of her for doing so,” he said.

In Scotland, Collins learned valuable lessons about religion, politics and acceptance.

“I was brought up Catholic and wanted to go to the Cub Scouts; however, the Catholic Cub Scout master was anti-English, so I was not allowed to join,” he explained. “Luckily, the Protestant Cub Scout master was more welcoming, so I was able to join their pack.”

As member of the Protestant troop, Collins joined in Orange marches – annual parades held by Protestant organizations commemorating Prince William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

“In those days, the Orange march would surround St. Margaret’s Catholic Church, and it was timed to reach the church as their Sunday service ended,” effectively blocking in the Catholic churchgoers.

“As a kid, I just thought it was nice that the parade organizers had chosen to go past the church so that the congregation could enjoy the parade as well,” he explained. “As we went past the church, I waved at all my fellow congregation members, but I could not understand why no one waved back at me.”

Outside of the Cub Scouts, Collins spent many hours playing with electronics and chemistry kits. “This was back in the day when you got unsealed mercury in the kits,” he said.

Although he chose mathematics as his undergraduate major, Collins became disillusioned with the subject. “I did not want to dedicate myself to something that does not directly help the multitude of problems our current world faces,” he said. “Hence, I moved away from (pure) mathematics and went into operations research – a science that overlaps with industrial engineering, engineering management and systems engineering.” The discipline helps to “provide analytical support to decision-makers.”

Collins, who earned his doctorate in operations research from the University of Southampton in 2009, ended up in Virginia when his wife took a position at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Norfolk.

In Virginia, Collins found a perfect fit at ODU’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center. He spent several years there as a research assistant professor before transitioning to the Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering in 2018.

When he’s not at work, Collins spends time with his wife, two children, and “an unhealthily large board game collection.”