Applied Soft Computing ( IF 5.472 ) Pub Date : 2020-10-14 , DOI: 10.1016/j.asoc.2020.106790 Chen-Xin Wu; Min-Hui Liao; Mumtaz Karatas; Sheng-Yong Chen; Yu-Jun Zheng
During the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pneumonia (COVID-19), there is a huge demand for medical masks. A mask manufacturer often receives a large amount of orders that must be processed within a short response time. It is of critical importance for the manufacturer to schedule and reschedule mask production tasks as efficiently as possible. However, when the number of tasks is large, most existing scheduling algorithms require very long computational time and, therefore, cannot meet the needs of emergency response. In this paper, we propose an end-to-end neural network, which takes a sequence of production tasks as inputs and produces a schedule of tasks in a real-time manner. The network is trained by reinforcement learning using the negative total tardiness as the reward signal. We applied the proposed approach to schedule emergency production tasks for a medical mask manufacturer during the peak of COVID-19 in China. Computational results show that the neural network scheduler can solve problem instances with hundreds of tasks within seconds. The objective function value obtained by the neural network scheduler is significantly better than those of existing constructive heuristics, and is close to those of the state-of-the-art metaheuristics whose computational time is unaffordable in practice.