Innovation - Can Rubik's Cube Solve Business Riddles?

Companies resemble puzzles: Many pieces must fit together (like staff, products and processes) in order to produce the desired outcome (profits). When a company fails to solve this quandary, or takes too long, it loses out to craftier competitors. In a new wrinkle, researchers are striving to help companies improve efficiency by studying the puzzle of all puzzles: the Rubik’s Cube.

Armed with at least 64 microprocessors and 20 terabytes of space, a professor from Northeastern University in Boston will try to do just that—by recording as many states of the Rubik’s Cube as possible. The project may seem like a fascination with one of the world’s most popular toys gone awry, but it’s actually a complex look at how better operations research could improve a company’s bottom line, says Gene Cooperman, director of the Institute for Complex Scientific Software at Northeastern, who is spearheading the project.

"I’ve never solved a Rubik’s Cube," Cooperman says. "It’s not one of my personal hobbies. But if you can take the more obscure research and apply it to something the public recognizes, then it’s definitely worth doing."

Cooperman says the Rubik’s Cube has about 40 quintillion possible states (Think beyond billions: That’s 40 followed by 19 zeros.) He believes the 20 terabytes of storage (for which his department was given a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to aid various research projects, including his) will not be enough to record all the states of the Rubik’s Cube. Even so, he says the myriad combinations the research will yield could help businesses make smarter operational decisions, such as planning more efficient employee travel schedules.

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