Simulation: operational definition and benefits

Simulation is the imitation of the behavior of some process, system, or entity from a real-life domain. This imitation is carried out based on a model, which is typically built and then run on one or more computers.  This is why the field is actually called modeling and simulation, and is often referred to as M&S.

Interestingly, a simulation can be built of something that does not yet exist, as a means of testing new ideas.

Four key reasons to use simulation

Why engage in simulation? The desire to learn more about how something behaves is to a great extent what drives interest in simulation. In addition to satisfying one’s intellectual curiosity, one simulates processes, conditions, and events because it allows one to:

  • circumvent uneconomical and error-prone full-scale buildouts or remodeling of infrastructure  — a hospital, road, airport, communications network, or other facility. It is demoralizing to find out belatedly that the deliverable being worked on for months is not quite the right answer to the original question or requirement, or that one has vastly misjudged capacity, throughput, speed of response, wait times, staffing needs, and so on
  • study a behavior over a compressed time frame. For example, with the right model, months of car traffic flow through a toll booth or patient flow through a hospital facility can be simulated in a matter of seconds or minutes. The intelligent generation of synthetic data that reflects real-world patterns does away with time wasted in field surveys, often under constraints that make their outcome less than ideal
  • test a variety of scenarios, and by changing model parameters and initial conditions, explore and rank a vast range of possible system states and outcomes which would otherwise be impossible to contemplate and act upon
  • accelerates learning, and can be used to impart feedback and develop and hone special skills by experimenting and making mistakes without fear, when trying to do so on “the real thing” would be dangerous or prohibitively costly. Think of trying to master a new skill or doing research on patient simulators (computerized mannequins) as opposed to real patients, thereby ensuring no harm comes to the latter!



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