Monday, February 22, 2010

Today I'll lose control of a simulated factory

Littlefield Factory For the past week in my Operations Engine class, we've been working in preassigned groups of three in a competitive online factory simulation activity called Littlefield. Each passing hour has represented a day in the life of the factory; today we lose the ability to make changes, and the factory continues on for 50 more simulated days. The team that makes the most money at the end wins ... I don't remember what.

The first step in this activity was to read a case about how the factory works. With this info, which included a lot of data, we could apply some formulas and models to figure out things like how many machines we should have at each station, how often and how large our raw-materials orders should be, what type of prioritization should be used as materials moved through the process, how to charge our customers (i.e. what type of lead-time guarantee we should offer), etc. We had to write up an action plan and submit it. I thought ours was pretty good.

Once the activity started, my group was pleased to be ranked respectfully in the top third -- around 7th or 8th out of 23 ... not sure why there are 23 groups, come to think of it, since there are 56 people in my cohort and 56/3 = 18 2/3. But whatevs. Anyway, we would check into the simulation and make sure the factory was flowing correctly -- that certain machines weren't being pushed too hard, that lines weren't forming, etc. Pretty fun ...

... Until we suddenly started falling in the ranks like a stone. In an act of "what do we have to lose," we made some purchases that were not part of our original plan, and those investments hit our cash so hard we fell to last but kept our fingers crossed we would rise again. We're still not sure what went wrong.

Fortunately, we've been doing better ... we got back up to 13th place somehow this morning, but have since fallen because we had to purchase some inventory. In the end I would just like to be respectfully in the middle, especially considering we worked pretty hard to make our plan. I suppose everyone else did, too, though. (That's one of the drawbacks to going to a good school ... it's hard to stand out for any positive reason.)

I guess the point of this story is to illustrate that, especially when it comes to something dynamic like operations, there are better ways to learn than just reading a case and having a discussion (although we do plenty of that, too). There is randomness and motion in operations that can be nicely simulated by a computer. This was not the first time in the class we used a simulation; we did the same in a case about a hibachi restaurant.

The final for this class is Friday, although I'm trying to get approval to take it a day earlier so I can attend a media conference at NYU on Friday. That would make for a pretty awful Thursday, however, because we also have our macro exam that morning. Those are my only two sit-down exams; I have take-home exams in my other two classes, Employee and Statistical Modeling.

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