Why digital simulation matters in a COVID-19 world

By Frances Sneddon, data scientist and CTO at Simul8.

With lockdown measures starting to loosen, governments around the world are trying to balance kickstarting economies with protecting people from a further spread of COVID-19.

However, opening things up again will be a challenge for businesses. Social distancing, cleaning and hygiene practices, the number of staff on the premises at any one time, shift patterns – this is where the list of new considerations begins. Add to this the wider interconnectivity of daily working needs, from customer interactions to managing supply chains, sharing workspaces with other businesses, and controlling the flow of people against transport and infrastructure dependencies.

Suddenly the ramifications of any changes begin to multiply. This is when digital simulation is invaluable. It helps businesses to rapidly test out the effects of different alterations to their workflows in a risk-free environment before putting them into practice.

Simulation reduces risk

With so many possible knock-on effects when implementing practices to control the spread of the virus, finding the best work-arounds to continue any semblance of business-as-usual will likely need some experimentation. Experimentation, however, comes with risk. Eliminating the risks through trial and error is not an option. Rather, simulation lends itself perfectly to safely adapting to the new world order where COVID-19 remains a threat.

Process simulation tools use animated, interactive models to replicate the operation of an existing or proposed production system. It enables businesses to analyse system efficiency and safely test process changes to improve throughput and profitability. It’s used for evaluating things such as optimising staffing resources, routing calls through a complex contact centre, and setting up or reconfiguring production lines.

Using this interactive model, businesses can quickly build a virtual representation of an existing or proposed system, similar to a flowchart. The simulation can then be used to highlight problems, experiment with process changes and run a range of ‘what-if’ scenarios. This will uncover solutions for delivering the best results without risk which means, as risk factors decrease, decision making confidence will increase.

For example, a production line may need to be elongated to allow enough space between stations for safe work practices. Businesses will need to determine what this additional space requirement will impose on and much more? Perhaps they will need to reduce storage space, or they will need to reconfigure other machinery. Warehouses, including picking and logistics processes, may also need to be restructured.

Once reconfigured, simulation can help businesses determine which disruptions will slow down the production process. Equipment, for instance, will need to be cleaned more frequently. Certain tasks requiring simultaneous input from more than one worker may need to be rearranged, or they may take longer than normal. Random events and variability

will also need to be considered. This might include equipment downtime in the event an engineer cannot be reached to resolve a maintenance issue, or perhaps staff absence if an employee is required to self-isolate with immediate effect.

The power of data

If businesses are to make appropriate decisions around these issues, they need to work with tangible data. But at a time when whole new precedents are being set, past data will have its limitations in informing the decisions of this new world order – and incorrect decisions could pose actual threats to human life. There is no room for error.

This is where digital simulation tools, especially AI-driven tools, are critical. They can learn quickly with cumulative predictive data, facilitating a powerful feedback loop.

Digital simulation enables businesses to test multiple different possible outcomes efficiently, cost-effectively and, importantly, without risk. Questions about staff resourcing, stock controls, waiting times, supply chain management – anything where you can create a flow chart to analyse different outcomes – is suitable for digital simulation.

Ultimately, every business can benefit from testing the viability, sustainability and even the profitability of a proposed change or improvement. Decision making processes are empowered by an improved level of realism and predictability while eliminating risk. It makes the use of digital simulation even more vital as a tool to help businesses navigate to more normalised services in a COVID-19 world.

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