A Deep Reinforcement Learning Framework for Column Generation

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 35 (NeurIPS 2022) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Cheng Chi, Amine Aboussalah, Elias Khalil, Juyoung Wang, Zoha Sherkat-Masoumi


Column Generation (CG) is an iterative algorithm for solving linear programs (LPs) with an extremely large number of variables (columns). CG is the workhorse for tackling large-scale integer linear programs, which rely on CG to solve LP relaxations within a branch and bound algorithm. Two canonical applications are the Cutting Stock Problem (CSP) and Vehicle Routing Problem with Time Windows (VRPTW). In VRPTW, for example, each binary variable represents the decision to include or exclude a route, of which there are exponentially many; CG incrementally grows the subset of columns being used, ultimately converging to an optimal solution. We propose RLCG, the first Reinforcement Learning (RL) approach for CG. Unlike typical column selection rules which myopically select a column based on local information at each iteration, we treat CG as a sequential decision-making problem, as the column selected in an iteration affects subsequent iterations of the algorithm. This perspective lends itself to a Deep Reinforcement Learning approach that uses Graph Neural Networks (GNNs) to represent the variable-constraint structure in the LP of interest. We perform an extensive set of experiments using the publicly available BPPLIB benchmark for CSP and Solomon benchmark for VRPTW. RLCG converges faster and reduces the number of CG iterations by 22.4% for CSP and 40.9% for VRPTW on average compared to a commonly used greedy policy.