UA Industrial Engineering Seniors Win Software Simulation Competition

Ed Stiles
June 14, 2002

Three University of Arizona Industrial Engineering seniors took first place in the eighth annual IIE/Rockwell Software Student Simulation Contest in Orlando, Fla.

The UA team was among the five finalists at the Orlando competition. Their team was selected from 54 teams representing 33 schools that initially entered the contest.

In Phase I of the competition, teams used Rockwell's Arena simulation software to analyze and optimize the work done at a fictional call center that served a travel business. The center had three computer servers and three types of clients. Priority in the calling queue had to be based on the caller's PIN number that indicated if they were classed as a gold, silver or regular customer. The students simulated a 12-hour calling period, at the end of which they had to clear the queue and forward the orders through an overseas call center.

"We had to tell the owners what staffing levels they would need and the capacity issues they would have to deal with," said team member Lisa Hardegree. "We had to tell them the number of calls they could get through each day with a certain number of staff members."

The students submitted a written report to the judges that detailed the system's capacity, staffing levels and kinds of people needed to carry out the operation. They also had to explain their basic model and use of animation in the software. The five finalists were selected based on these reports.

At the finals in Orlando the judges asked the teams to modify their simulations to see if they could cut costs and make a more efficient system by employing just one kind of skilled laborer. Each team was given four hours to make the changes and then was asked to give a 15-minute presentation to the judges, followed by a five-minute question-and-answer session.

The UA students credited their win to good use of animation and the team's ability to translate the technical information into concepts that could be easily grasped by non-engineers.

The students were asked to go through the details of their model briefly, but then to concentrate on presenting the results to the fictional company's management. Managers would want to know how the model was verified and if it accurately modeled the call system. They also would want to know how much the changes would cost and the kind and quantity of employees they would need to hire.

"We did a good job of answering those questions clearly," Hardegree said. Some of the other teams concentrated too much on the way they built the model and not on what it would do for the customer, she added.

The students split the project into three task areas. Hardegree worked on the simulation, while Mark Hutzler handled animation and Gavin Ekins did statistical studies of the data and model validation.

"Our undergraduate work was a big factor in doing well -- all the probability and statistics classes and our simulations class," Hutzler said. "Our simulation class was taught in Sigma, not Arena, but our instructor did an excellent job in teaching us how to construct simulations so that we could pick up any package and use it. He didn't want us to be so specialized that we would only be able to use one software package."

In addition to a good educational background, the students also brought enthusiasm to the project. "I enjoy simulation," Hardegree said. "It's fun to be able to take a blank canvas and make something useful for a real-world system."

All three students are UA industrial engineering seniors, who graduated in May. Their faculty advisor on the project was Young Jun Son, an assistant professor in Systems and Industrial Engineering.