Al-Azhar University Engineering Journal, JAUES

Vol. 2, No. 4, Apr. 2007
389



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AL-AZHAR ENGINEERING
NINTH INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE
April 12 - 14, 2007

Code M34

Neural Network Applications to Buffer Allocation Problems in Automated
Transfer Lines

Mehmet Savsar
1
, Ashraf S. Youssef
2


1
College of Engineering and Petroleum, Kuwait University
2
Faculty of Engineering Fayoum University, Fayoum, Egypt

ABSTRACT

Efficiency of serial production flow lines is severely affected by equipment unreliability,
particularly if the stages of production are rigidly linked and sufficient storage spaces are not
provided. However, excessive storage space increases the initial system costs as well as work-
in-process levels while moderate storage space may not meet the production requirements.
Therefore, in the design and operation of serial production lines, determination of the amount
of storage space to be allocated to each station is particularly important. This paper presents a
procedure, which combines simulation and neural network modeling approach to determine
the optimum buffer capacities between the stages of an unreliable production flow line based
on such line parameters as operation times, expected equipment failure rates, and the repair
rates. Case problems are solved and the results are compared to previously reported
algorithms. Study results indicate that the proposed procedure could be a useful tool in
designing serial production lines with intermediate storages.

© 2007 Faculty of Engineering, Al-Azhar University, Cairo, Egypt. All rights reserved.

KEYWORDS:-Serial Production, Flow Line, Simulation, Neural Networks,
Buffer Storages

1 INTRODUCTION

A production flow line is characterized by a series of interconnected work stations, at which
operations are performed on work pieces in order to convert the system inputs into outputs.
This type of production system design is very common in industry since the material flow is
relatively simple and production control is uncomplicated. However, line efficiency reduces
as the number of serial stations increase, since a problem in one station is directly transmitted
to the other stations. In order to improve the efficiency and productivity of such production
systems, in-process inventories are introduced as decoupling agents to balance and smooth the
flow of semi finished parts between successive production operations and to reduce the
negative effects of equipment failures or stoppages on system output. While introduction of
large buffer capacities between stages results in excessive inventories and costs, small buffer
capacities result in production losses due to unexpected stoppages and delays between the
stages of production. Therefore, one of the major problems associated with the design and



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operation of serial production systems is the determination of the optimal buffer capacities
between the stages.

Over the past three decades a large amount of research has been devoted to the analysis and
modeling of production line systems. Papadopoulos and Heavey (1996) present a
comprehensive literature review of related papers. A brief review is presented here.
Production line systems can take a variety of structures depending on the operational
characteristics. Operation times can be stochastic or deterministic; stations can be reliable or
unreliable; buffer capacities can be finite or infinite; production line can be balanced or
unbalanced; and material flow can be considered as discrete or continuous. Depending on the
type of line considered and the assumptions made, complexity of the models vary. Previous
research work can be classified under four general categories: (i) Analytical models resulting
in exact closed form solutions; (ii) models with exact numerical solutions; (iii) models with
approximate closed form solutions; and (iv) simulation models combined with other
procedures, such as regression or genetic algorithms.

The objective in modeling these systems is to determine the throughput rate and machine
utilizations as a function of buffer capacities. Optimum buffer allocation results in maximum
throughput rate. However, when stations are unreliable and/or operation times are stochastic,
the problem with finite buffer capacity becomes more complex. Analytical models are
available only for limited size lines. Savsar and Biles (1984) and Buzacott and Kostelski
(1987) presented closed form solutions for two-stage unreliable lines. Gershwin and Schick
(1983) presented a closed form solution for a three-stage unreliable line. Heavey et. al. (1993)
presented exact models for multi stage lines with intermediate buffers. Hillier and So (1991)
and Hillier, et. al. (1993) investigated the effects of various factors on buffer allocation in
serial lines. Savsar and Biles (1985) and Savsar (1989) presented generalized simulation
models to determine the throughput rate and utilization of machines for unreliable serial
production flow lines with buffers. Mak (1986), Houshyar (1992), Papadopoulos and Vouros
(1997), and Vouros and Papadopoulos (1998) developed algorithms for buffer allocation on
reliable and unreliable production lines. Al-Harkan and Al-Fawzan (2001) presented an
integrated simulation-genetic algorithm for the buffer allocation problem.

Analytical models are restricted with several assumptions and closed form solutions are
obtained for relatively small lines. Simulation models are less restrictive and allow realistic
modeling. However, in case of optimum buffer allocation, numbers of possible buffer
capacity combinations are usually very large and can not be simulated. Genetic algorithms
have been used to search optimum allocation among a large number of possibilities. When the
numbers of possible combinations are large, the solution found may be far from the optimum.

This paper presents a method and an algorithm to determine optimum buffer capacities
between the stages of unbalanced and/or unreliable serial production lines. In particular, a
simulation model is developed to observe the behavior of the line under selected buffer
capacity combinations, which are chosen randomly from all possible combinations by a
systematic method. The results of simulation are used to train an artificial neural network
model to determine the production line throughput. The neural network is then be used to
evaluate all possible combinations of buffer capacities to select the best combination with
respect to line throughput. The results indicate that the procedure is capable of solving large
problems.









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2 Buffer Allocation Algorithm

A serial production flow line with n stations (M
1
, M
2
,….,M
n
) and n+1 buffers (B
1
,
B
2
,….,B
n+1
) is shown in figure 1. The first and the last buffers, B
1
and B
n+1
, are assumed to
have infinite capacities while intermediate buffers, B
2
, … B
n
, are with finite capacities.



B
1
M
1
B
2
……... B
n
M
n
B
n+1


Figure 1 A serial production line with n machines

Machines are assumed to have random processing times resulting in unbalances between the
stations. If a station operates at a slower pace than its neighbors, it will result in starvation of
the following station and blockage at the preceding station. Furthermore, machines are also
assumed to be unreliable with certain time to failure and time to repair distributions, failure
rates, repair rates. Buffers are used to reduce effects of unbalances due to random processing
times and the effects of equipment failures on line throughput rate. The question is how
much buffer capacity is to allocate to each station to maximize the throughput rate. The basic
structure of the proposed procedure to determine the optimum buffer capacities is shown in
figure 2.

The basic procedure starts with generation of all possible buffer combinations for the line
under consideration and maximum buffer capacity allowed. The next step is to select a set of
representative combinations to be evaluated by simulation. The third step involves with the
simulation of the line with selected buffer combinations and determination of a performance
measure, such as throughput rate. In the fourth step a neural network model is developed and
trained using the simulation results. Finally, in the fifth step optimum buffer capacity
combination is determined by evaluating all possible combinations. The number of
possibilities may be very large depending on the maximum capacity allowed and the number
of stations on the line. If the maximum buffer capacity at each station was allowed to be 9
with a maximum of 36 buffers on a 5-station line, then the total number of combinations
would be 10
4
=10,000, including a capacity of 0 at any station. This number would reach to
10
9
possible combinations for a 10-station line. If the maximum of 10 buffer capacities is
allowed at each station, as well as in all the line, total number of combinations would be
1003. The production line case example considered in this study has 5 stages with line
parameters as specified in table 1. Line structure and operation parameters were specifically
selected to be the same values as given by Vouros and Papadopoulos (1998) and Al-Harkan
and Al-Fawzan (2001). Selection of the same parameters allowed us to compare the neural
network results to their results. These values may not represent a realistic production line;
however, they are acceptable for comparison purposes. Operation times, time to failure, and
repair times were assumed to follow exponential distribution with the parameters given in
table 1 for all stations.







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I. Generation of all possible buffer allocation
combinations within the specified capacity limits.



II. Random selection of certain buffer allocations
which represent all possible combinations.


III. Development of a simulation model and
simulation of selected buffer allocations.


IV. Development of a neural network model;
training, and testing with simulation results.


V. Determination of best buffer allocations among
all possible combinations using NN model


Figure 2 Optimum buffer allocation procedure

Station No. i n Operation Time (α
i
) n Failure Rate (λ
i
) n Repair Rate (μ
i
)
1 1.0 0.10 0.50
2 1.0 0.20 0.50
3 1.0 0.25 0.50
4 1.0 0.30 0.50
5 1.0 0.35 0.50

Table 1 Production line parameters selected for analysis

3 Buffer Combinations And The Simulation Model

As mentioned in the previous section, the first step in determining optimum buffer allocation
is to determine all possible combinations to be evaluated with respect to production line
performance measure, which is line throughput rate in our case. If maximum buffer capacity
allowed at each station is m and there are n buffers on a line with n+1 stations, then the total
possibilities would be (m+1)
n
. For example, for n=2 buffers (in a 3-station line) and m=3
maximum buffer capacity allowed at each station, there would be 4
2
=16 combinations as
follows: (0,0), (0,1), (0,2), (0,3), (1,0), (1,1), (1,2), (1,3), (2,0), (2,1), (2,2), (2,3), (3,0), (3,1),
(3,2), (3,3), where the numbers in parenthesis are buffer capacities for the first and the
second buffers respectively. Generation of these combinations is straightforward. However,
if the maximum capacity on the line is the same as the maximum at each station, generation
of possibilities is not so straightforward. In the above example, if the total capacity allowed
on the line is also 3, then the possible combinations would be (0,0), (0,1), (0,2), (0,3), (1,0),



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(1,1), (1,2), (2,0), (2,1), (3,0), a total of 10, excluding the combinations in which the total
exceeds 3. A computer code was developed in VISUAL BASIC to generate all buffer
capacity combinations for a given line with maximum capacity restriction and store them in
MS ACCESS to be used by the NN.

One could attempt to simulate all the possibilities and determine the best combination, which
maximizes line throughput rate. However, when number of stations and the maximum buffer
capacity allowed at each station is increased, the number of possibilities also increases
exponentially. Evaluation of all possibilities by simulation to determine the optimum
becomes very difficult and impractical. Thus, optimum is searched by the generalized model
procedure proposed in this study. A representative set of buffer combinations is selected
from all possibilities, which are used to train and validate a neural network to be utilized to
search the optimum.

In our preliminary study, we have selected a 5-station line and investigated the effects of
allowing different maximum buffer capacities at each station as well as at the complete line.
We considered maximum buffers of 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 units, which resulted in various total
numbers of combinations ranging from 210 to 1001. About 15% of maximum combinations
(150) were selected to train and test a neural network for the case of maximum 10 buffers.
The other cases were subset of this case. In order to determine the performance measure for
the selected buffer combinations, a simulation model was developed using SIMAN language
(Pegden, 1995) and the selected 150 combinations were simulated to determine line
throughput rate. These results were used to train the neural network model. The simulation
model was also used to simulate another set of 15 combinations for each case, which were
never seen by the neural network. These results were used to check the validity and accuracy
of the neural network model.

4 Neural Network Model And The Results

Neural network (NN) model was based on Neuro Shell 2 (1998). Throughput rate of 150
patterns (about 15% of the total possibilities), which were determined by simulation, and the
related combinations were used to train and test the NN model. Thus, the input for the neural
network was 4 buffer combinations representing four nodes at the input layer, while the
output was the line throughput rate, representing one node at the output layer. Of the total
150 patterns, 105 patterns were used to train the NN model and 45 patterns (30% of the
selected combinations) were used to test the NN model. Ward net supervised architecture and
general regression net was used as a predictive model. For training criteria, random pattern
selection with a learning rate of 0.01 is found to be suited since we had randomness in our
data. Average error allowed was 0.002. Table 2 summarizes the final neural network model
architecture with related definitions. NN models with 1, 2, and 3 hidden layers were
experimented and the model with 2 hidden layers with seven nodes at each was found to be
the best model. The trend in error reduction is shown in figure 3 and figure 4. It took about
20,000 iterations to reach to the specified error level.








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Architecture: Computation/Termination Criteria:
Ward net, supervised Random pattern Selection
1 Input Layer with 4 nodes Learning Rate: 0.1
2 Hidden Layers; 7 nodes each Average error: 0.002
1 Output Layer with 1 node

Table 2 Neural Network Model Definition


Figure 3 Error reduction trend in NN training set



Figure 4 Error reduction trend in NN test set

As it was mentioned in section 2, production line parameters were selected similar to those
reported by Vouros and Papadopoulos (1998) and Al-Harkan and Al-Fawzan (2001) for
comparison purposes. In addition to the cases previously studied, we have considered and
studied a production line without failures (a reliable production line with the same variable
processing times as given in table 1) and also a line with relatively shorter mean repair times
of 0.5 time units (repair rate of µ=2.0) instead of mean repair time of 2 time units (repair rate
of µ=0.5) as given in table 1, with all the other parameters being the same as before. We
presented these two additional cases since we feel that the selected failure and repair
parameters may not represent realistic production line operation. Table 3 shows the partial



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list of buffer combinations simulated and utilized to train and test the neural network for the
case example presented in table 1. Buffer combinations are selected randomly from all
possibilities, with the condition that all the ranges are covered. Specifically, 30 combinations
were selected from each of the total buffer capacity ranges of 0-2; 3-4; 5-6; 7-8; and 9-10.
The last two columns in table 3 compare the throughput rates from simulation and the trained
NN model.

Combination
No.
B
2
B
3
B
4
B
5
Simulation
Results
NN
Results
1 0 0 0 1 11 11
2 0 0 1 1 36 34
3 0 0 7 3 27 34
4 1 1 4 2 59 63
5 0 1 1 4 45 50
6 1 1 2 4 60 61
7 1 2 4 1 52 54
8 2 2 2 2 68 63
9 3 2 1 2 54 50
10 3 1 3 2 62 61
11 2 4 2 1 54 53
12 3 2 1 3 54 57
13 1 3 4 2 69 72
14 6 1 1 2 59 54
15 4 2 2 2 61 66
. 1 4 4 1 52 52
. 5 1 1 2 50 51
149 1 1 1 7 57 60
150 4 1 1 4 51 57

Table 3 Partial List of buffer combinations simulated and used to train the NN

These results are also plotted in figure 5, which compares the NN model results to simulation
results. Table 4 shows the statistical results for the trained NN model. Correlation coefficient
is 96.03% between the simulation and the NN model outputs. About 10% of the results
exceeded 20% error. Figure 6 shows the scatter graph correlating NN and simulation results.
A high correlation is seen from the figure.
In order to check the validity of the NN model, 20 buffer combination cases, which were
never seen by the NN model, were selected and the performance measures were determined
by simulation as well as by the NN model. The results are compared in table 5 and shown in
figure 7. The NN model deviations from simulation results are measured by the mean
absolute error (MAE), percent mean absolute error (%MAE), root mean square error
(RMSE) and percent root mean square error (%RMSE) as given in the last row of table 5.
MAE was 3.17 while RMSE was 3.64. % mean absolute error and mean absolute error
squared were 7.80% and 9.58% respectively.



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Comapring Simulation and Neural Network Results
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
1 11 21 31 41 51 61 71 81 91 101 111 121 131 141
Selected Buffer Combinations
L
i
n
e

T
h
r
o
u
g
h
p
u
t

R
a
t
e
Simulation NN

Figure 5 Comparison of Simulation and NN Results for Selected Combinations.

R Squared: 0.9323 Mean Squared Error: 18.63
Mean Absolute Error: 3.330 Min. Absolute Error: 0.0020
Max. Absolute Error: 17.106 Correlation Coefficient r: 0.9608
Percent Over 20% Error:10% Learning Rate: 0.0010
Table 4 Statistical Results for the NN Model


Figure 6 Correlation between simulation and the NN results
These deviations may seem to be somewhat higher than expected. However, this was due to
very high randomness in the selected system parameters, such as random processing times,
highly random time to failures, and highly random repair times. When the experiments were
carried out with a reliable system without failures, the deviation of NN model results from
simulation results were convincingly low, in the order of 1.51% for the percent MSE and
1.71% for the percent RMSE. All the results for the reliable system could not be reproduced



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here due to space limitations. Results of the case compared to the previous studies have only
been presented in table 5.

Combination
Number
Throughput
Simul. NN
Abs.
Error
(%) Abs.
Error
Abs. Error
Squared
(%)Abs. Err.
Squared
1 48 51 3 6.25 9 39.0
2 55 59 4 7.27 16 52.8
3 58 59 1 1.72 1 2.9
4 67 68 1 1.49 1 2.2
5 46 48 2 4.35 4 18.9
6 44 41 3 6.82 9 46.4
7 60 53 7 11.67 49 136.1
8 66 65 1 1.52 1 2.3
9 60 53 7 11.67 49 136.1
10 52 56 4 7.69 16 59.1
11 56 53 3 5.36 9 28.7
12 43 46 3 6.98 9 48.6
13 51 47 4 7.84 16 61.5
14 54 59 5 9.26 25 85.7
15 66 64 2 3.03 4 9.1
16 20 24 4 20.00 16 400.0
17 19 18 1 5.26 1 27.7
18 9 11 2 22.22 4 493.5
Average
48.56 48.61
MAE:
3.17
MAE%:
7.80%
MSE: 13.28
RMSE: 3.64
% MSE: 91.75
RMSE: 9.58%
Table 5 Comparison of simulation and NN with buffer combinations not seen by NN


0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Combination Number
L
i
n
e

T
h
r
o
u
g
h
p
u
t

R
a
t
e
Simulation NN

Figure 7 Comparison of simulation and NN results with 16 runs never seen by NN

The trained NN model was utilized to determine the optimum buffer combinations for each
case considered. These results are presented in table 6. Maximum buffer capacities selected
were 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10. It was not necessary to go below 6 buffers, since the number of
combinations would be very small, which makes it possible to determine the optimum
combination by analytical modeling or simulation. It is unnecessary to consider another



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procedure which builds on simulation results. Number of buffer combinations for each
maximum buffer capacity is shown in the second column of table 6. For each case, optimum
buffer combination is determined by running all possible combinations through the NN
model and determining the combination that resulted in maximum throughput rate. In
addition to unreliable production line cases, the optimum buffer combinations are also given
for the reliable production line case. In all three cases, production line parameters are as
given in table 1, with the exception that reliable line had no failures and the two unreliable
lines differed with respect to failure rates as indicated in table 6. One expected result that can
be seen from the table is that all optimum combinations occurred at maximum total buffer
capacities allowed. For example, if the maximum total buffer capacity allowed at the line is
9, optimum buffer combination also occurs at a total of 9 buffers, such as 2-2-2-3 for the
reliable line, and 0-5-0-4 and 0-4-3-2 for the two unreliable lines. Similarly, optimum
combinations for other maximum buffer cases also occurred at the respective maximum
values.

As it is seen from table 6, while optimum buffer combinations exhibit a bowl phenomena
(more buffers assigned to the middle stages) in some cases, zero buffers have been allocated
to the first stage in almost all the cases of unreliable lines, mainly because of a smaller failure
rate (0.10) for the first stage compared to the other stages. Even though the last stage had the
largest failure rate (0.35), the largest number of buffers has not been assigned to it in many
cases. While a relatively uniform buffer allocation is observed in the case of reliable cell, it is
difficult to indicate a good trend for the unreliable lines.

Optimum Buffer Combinations and Production Rates Maximum
Buffers
Number of
Possible
Combinations
Case1:
Reliable Line
Case 2: µ=2.0
Unreliable Line
Case 3: µ=0.5
Unreliable Line
6 210 1-2-2-1 315 0-3-3-0 243 0-2-2-2 59
7 330 2-2-2-1 321 0-3-4-0 263 0-3-2-2 66
8 495 2-2-2-2 332 0-4-0-4 276 0-3-3-2 70
9 715 2-2-2-3 338 0-5-0-4 288 0-3-4-2 72
10 1001 2-2-3-3 342 1-4-2-3 288 1-3-4-2 76
Table 6 Comparisons of various cases with respect to optimum buffer combinations

Finally, the optimum results found by the NN model for case 3 are compared to the optimum
allocations reported by Vouros and Papadopoulos (1998) and genetic algorithm allocations
reported by Al-Harkan and Al-Fawzan (2001). These comparisons are presented in table 7.
The NN model results were similar to genetic algorithm results and close to the optimum
results. Also the deviations of throughput values from the optimum throughput were not
significant, with an average deviation of 5%. The usefulness of the NN modeling approach
can be clear when one considers a longer production line with more buffer capacities. For
example, when a line with 7 stations and a maximum of 15 buffers is considered, total
number of combinations reach to 65,000 to be evaluated to find the optimum. The optimum
solution for longer production lines can not be found analytically. It is also extremely
difficult to simulate a large number of buffer combinations resulting from longer lines.
However, a trained NN model can find a near optimum or a satisfactory solution in seconds.
When the NN model is trained with, for example 15 buffers and 7 stations, it can be used for
any buffer combinations that are contained within maximum of 15 for the same number of



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stations. The authors are currently experimenting with longer lines and larger buffer
capacities to further evaluate the usefulness of the NN model.

Maximum
Buffer
Capacity
Optimum
Buffer
Allocation
Genetic
Algorithm
Allocation
Neural
Network
Allocation
Throughput
Deviation (%)
from Optimum
6 0-2-2-2 0-2-2-2 0-2-2-2 0.0%
7 1-2-2-2 0-3-2-2 0-3-2-2 10.1%
8 1-2-3-2 0-2-3-3 0-3-3-2 0.8%
9 1-2-3-3 0-3-4-2 0-3-4-2 9.3%
10 1-3-3-3 1-3-3-3 1-4-3-2 5.1%
Table 7 Comparison of NN allocations to other algorithms

5 CONCLUSION

A generalized simulation-neural network modeling procedure has been presented for
optimum buffer allocation in the design and operation of serial production flow lines. Several
case problems with different buffer capacities are evaluated using the proposed procedure for
both reliable and the unreliable production lines. Main focus and the presentation of results
were on the unreliable lines in order to be able compare the results to some previously
reported results. In case of a 5-station line with maximum allowed buffer capacities of 6, 7,
8, 9, and 10 units, the NN model compared well with optimum allocations and the Genetic
Algorithm results with respect to throughput and the best allocations achieved. Throughput
deviations from the optimum were about 5% when compared to the optimum allocations
reported.

The usefulness of the NN model would be in analyzing longer lines and larger buffer
capacities, since such cases can not be solved optimally and reasonably good solutions would
be acceptable. The procedure and the results outlined in this research can be extended to
obtain a generalized algorithm such that any type of line with any maximum buffer capacity
can be studied for optimum allocations.

6 REFERENCES

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st
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Industrial Engineering Conference, Amman, Jordan, Sept. 23-27, 397-405.
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Algorithm Solution of a Two-Stage Unreliable Flow Line”, AIIE Transactions, 19(4)
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