Best practices for formulating optimization models

Are you feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of your optimization models? Do you struggle to find the right balance between accuracy and efficiency? Don't worry, you're not alone! Optimization is one of the most challenging and rewarding fields of mathematics, and mastering it requires a lot of practice and knowledge. In this article, we will share with you some of the best practices for formulating optimization models, gleaned from our experience working with some of the most powerful optimization tools available, such as Gurobi, CPLEX, and Pyomo.

Understanding the problem

Before you start formulating an optimization model, you need to understand the problem you're trying to solve. You need to know the variables, constraints, and objectives that characterize your system. You also need to know the data that will drive your optimization, such as prices, capacities, demands, and limits. The better you understand your problem, the more effective your optimization model will be.

Decomposing the problem

One of the best ways to understand a complex problem is to decompose it into smaller, manageable parts. For example, if you're designing a production line, you can break it down into different stages, each with its own objectives and constraints. By doing this, you can focus on each stage independently and then connect them together to create a complete model. This approach can help you avoid the curse of dimensionality, where the number of variables and constraints increases exponentially with the size of the problem.

Defining the decision variables

The decision variables are the fundamental building blocks of your optimization model. They represent the quantities or actions that you want to optimize. For example, if you're managing a supply chain, you might define the decision variables as the quantities of each product to produce, transport, store, and sell. You need to choose the right level of granularity for your decision variables, so that they capture the essential trade-offs in your problem. You also need to specify the bounds, types, and dependencies of your decision variables, to ensure that they are feasible and meaningful.

Formulating the objective function

The objective function is the heart of your optimization model. It expresses the goal you want to achieve, such as maximizing profits, minimizing costs, or balancing trade-offs. Formulating the objective function requires a deep understanding of your problem and your decision variables. You need to choose the right metrics, such as revenue, margin, or customer satisfaction, that capture the value of your system. You also need to express the trade-offs between different objectives, such as between short-term and long-term goals, or between conflicting stakeholders. The objective function should be simple and transparent, so that you can explain it to your audience and test it effectively.

Specifying the constraints

The constraints are the rules that limit the feasible region of your optimization model. They represent the physical or logical constraints that your system must obey, such as capacity, quality, safety, or regulatory compliance. Specifying the constraints requires a careful analysis of your problem and your decision variables. You need to identify the constraints that have the greatest impact on your system, and that are the most difficult to satisfy. You also need to recognize the dependencies and interactions between different constraints, so that you can avoid over-constraining or under-constraining your model. By balancing the trade-offs between feasibility and optimality, you can create a robust and practical optimization model.

Choosing the solver and parameters

The solver is the algorithm that will solve your optimization model and find the optimal solution. There are many solvers available, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Some solvers are better suited for linear programming, while others are better suited for mixed-integer programming or nonlinear programming. Some solvers are more scalable, while others are more precise. Choosing the right solver for your problem requires a deep understanding of your problem and the solvers available. You also need to choose the right parameters for your solver, such as the tolerance, the method, and the cut-off, to ensure that it is efficient and effective.

Testing and validating the model

Once you have formulated your optimization model, you need to test and validate it, to ensure that it is correct and meaningful. Testing and validating the model involves several steps:

generating synthetic data

Generating synthetic data is a good way to test the robustness and scalability of your optimization model. Synthetic data can simulate different scenarios, such as different demand profiles, supplier disruptions, or policy changes. By varying the parameters of your synthetic data, you can test how well your optimization model adapts to changes in the system.

verifying the output

Verifying the output of your optimization model is essential to ensure that it is correct and meaningful. This involves comparing the output of your optimization model with the expected output, such as historical data, benchmarks, or expert judgment. Verifying the output can help you identify errors or inconsistencies in your model, or reveal hidden assumptions or biases.

sensitivity analysis

Sensitivity analysis is a powerful tool for understanding how your optimization model responds to changes in its input parameters. Sensitivity analysis involves varying one or more input parameters and observing the resulting changes in the output variables. Sensitivity analysis can help you identify which variables have the greatest impact on your optimization model, and which variables are the most uncertain or volatile.


Formulating optimization models is a challenging and rewarding task that requires a lot of practice and knowledge. By following the best practices outlined in this article, you can create robust, efficient, and effective optimization models that can improve your system. Don't be afraid to experiment and try new approaches, and don't forget to test and validate your models to ensure their correctness and meaningfulness. Optimization is an exciting field that is constantly evolving, and we hope that this article has inspired you to join the optimization community and explore its many possibilities.

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