Alumnus uses education and exposure in industry to foster success at Amazon

Mia Hollie
July 16, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For Penn State alumnus Athul Krishna, class of 2016, choosing to pursue engineering was a no brainer. The real question was which direction to go after his undergraduate degree.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the College of Engineering Trivandrum in India, Krishna worked as an engineer at Tata Motors, India’s largest automobile manufacturer. There he created supply chain and operations strategy for launching next-generation engines. It was through this experience that Krishna found his love for industrial engineering.

“At Tata Motors, I was constantly problem solving to launch fuel-efficient engines in India,” Krishna said. “This experience motivated me to build a deeper understanding on applying the science of engineering techniques to solve real-world problems.”

When Krishna decided to further his education by pursuing a graduate degree, the master’s program in the Penn State Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering stood out for its balance between academic content and real-world practice.

“Penn State offers a world-class education,” Krishna said. “The department curriculum provided exposure to various principles and tools and enabled real-world practice through research projects.”

Along with his studies, Krishna also learned the importance of a warm winter coat to brave State College’s harsh winters.

Laying the foundation

During the first year of his master’s program, Krishna built a forecasting model that predicted product demand for the Penn State Berkey Creamery.

Product forecasting is a technique that anticipates future trends to help businesses bridge the gap between supply and demand. The project was conducted as part of an engineering course led by A. Ravi Ravindran, professor emeritus of industrial engineering.

“Prior to the project, I had never applied forecasting techniques on real-world data,” Krishna said. “Leveraging forecasting principles to benefit the Berkey Creamery was a classic example of utilizing engineering education to improve business operations.”  

Though he worked on various projects, from building analytical models for call center staffing to simulation models for warehouse operations, Krishna’s time was primarily spent on developing workforce planning models for distribution center operations for his thesis.

“Distribution centers lack models and tools to plan workforce efficiently,” Krishna said. “Addressing this gap allows businesses to generate additional revenue and save operational costs.”

Vittal Prabhu, professor of industrial engineering and Charles and Enid Schneider Faculty Chair in Service Enterprise Engineering, worked alongside Krishna as his thesis adviser.

“There is a need for engineering techniques to help distribution center managers maximize operational performance that are primarily driven by cost and service level under supply chain variability,” Prabhu said.

During the research, Krishna developed a computational model that estimated the travel time for forklifts used in distribution centers. He built analytical and simulation models that examined the impact of workforce capacity on key operational measures such as cycle time, labor hours and energy consumption.

These models were integrated to adapt workforce capacity to variable demand that distribution centers experience in real-world operations. The research showed that optimal workforce capacity policies reduced operational costs by 18% without impacting service quality.

After finishing his thesis, Krishna wanted to ensure that his work could benefit others in his field.

“Utilizing the research for real-world practice necessitated development of simple self-service tools and technical documentation,” he said.

Using his thesis as a foundation, Krishna developed a business intelligence tool called LIONSPAW (Logistics and Operations Planning for Adaptive Workforce). LIONSPAW offers distribution center modeling, operational analytics and data visualization capabilities, which allow businesses to easily build workforce capacity policies for distribution centers. Hoping to benefit undergraduate education, he built case studies to teach undergraduate students about developing workforce capacity policies using LIONSPAW.

Additionally, a research paper based on the thesis was published and presented at the IFIP International Conference on Advances in Production Management Systems, held in Brazil in 2016.

Hey Alexa!

As someone who is always looking for ways to apply theory to practice, Krishna applied for an operations intern position at Amazon during his master’s program. After several interviews, screenings and aptitude tests, the company offered him the position.

During the internship, he was tasked with solving an ambiguous business problem that was adversely impacting the operational efficiency for one of Amazon’s distribution centers.

“Most of my time was spent to understand the problem,” Krishna said. “What are the different levers impacting operational efficiency, which are the ones negatively contributing to the current state of operations and what are the root causes for it?”

By analyzing large volumes of data, testing hypotheses and learning from several experiments, Krishna designed, validated and implemented a solution, which resulted in huge cost savings for Amazon.

He built a standard operating procedure, based on the operational processes and tools he developed during the internship, to scale the solution to other distribution centers at Amazon.

At the end of the internship, Krishna was offered a full-time position. Soon after graduating with his master’s degree in industrial engineering in 2016, Krishna started his role as senior product manager.

In this role, Krishna builds business strategy for technical products and leads product development teams. Over the last few years, Krishna has developed operational technologies for last mile delivery and voice technologies for Alexa.

“Amazon has an entrepreneurial culture,” Krishna said. “I like the ecosystem that organically enables you to solve problems with innovative ideas, especially solutions that requires artificial intelligence technologies.”

Take it from an alumnus …

Krishna believes in having clear goals and diligently working toward them.

“Build clarity on what you want to achieve, relentlessly pursue your goals and keep pushing your boundaries,” Krishna said.

He recommends students foster a problem-solving mindset, embrace hands-on learning and strive for excellence.

“Fundamentals remain the same everywhere,” Krishna said. “Learn to define complex problems clearly, develop a shared understanding with everyone and build solutions with high standards.”

SEE 360, as part of the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, aims to engineer the 21st-century economy by educating students on how they can find and solve service industry problems. The initiative offers a minor degree, works on developing teaching resources such as textbooks and case studies, and introduces students to opportunities for engineering in labor-intensive service industries by partnering with businesses to optimize service. For more information, visit www.see360.psu.edu.

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Last Updated September 03, 2020