News at Smith

Distributor Game

May 01, 2005


Research by Thomas Corsi and Sandor Boyson

The globalization of supply chains has created new challenges for companies dealing with longer transportation times, big inventories, complex logistics and the high cost of coordinating information, goods and money across the globe. A new web-based management game at the Smith School is the first of a series developed to address supply chain challenges such as globalization, the increasing importance of the customer role and mass customization.

Supply chain managers today deal with an overwhelming flood of data, more than the manager can actually process. Despite this abundance of data, however, managers often do not have insight into the ripple effects of their decision-making on the supply chain. Thomas Corsi, Michelle E. Smith Professor of Logistics, and Sandor Boyson, research professor, who are co-directors of the Smith School Supply Chain Management Center, developed the Distributor Game, a management game designed to help students engage with supply chain challenges related to globalization, giving students a feel for the 24/7 global environment of the supply chain world.

The Distributor Game has been played and tested with MBA students who specialized in supply chain management. “This game is anchored in a next-generation web simulation architecture, with distributed, real-time, multi-player access over the web and with embedded agents whose behaviors can be flexibly programmed. The architecture provides the opportunity to test out complex supply chain interactions and behaviors in ways we have not had the capacity to do before,” says Boyson.

The game was tested with 32 Smith School MBA students who had access to a web portal that contained the instructions, content and background information for the game. The web server for this portal was based in Delft, The Netherlands. The players used a graphical interface downloaded from the web portal to control the distributors, enabling the players to always use the latest available graphical user interface without installing new software. No specific game software needed to be installed on classroom computers.

The architecture of the game allows multiple game administrators to login at the same time from different computers, each of whom may focus on a different part of the game.

The scenario focused on a demand surge for laptop computers in the Asian region and a diminishing demand for desktop computers. Suppliers in the Asian region were modeled in such a way that they could not meet the increased demand of distributors, causing shift in demand from Asian distributors to suppliers in the U.S.

Players had to manage a variety of operational- level decision-making processes to keep their distributors in an economically healthy state. Players had to deal with business messages including quotes, orders, confirmations, and bills. Shipments and payments were handled by computational algorithms that supported the human players. It is possible to structure the game to focus on setting policies for more advanced agents that handle the business message on their behalf. The games architecture also supports splitting the decision-making process between multiple players on a team, so that one focuses on inventory and one on sales, for example.

To better reflect the pace of the real-time global supply chain, the simulator allows for continuous play by looping over an event list while taking pre-defined steps in between. The controls allow the game operators to slow down or speed up a game, helping to emphasize and control the attention and focus of the players. The simulator is part of the DSOL suite, a set of Java-based simulation libraries.

A game may last several weeks or even over the course of a semester, where players can make decisions to manage companies at different times and from different locations. Continuous time advance, rather than turn-based play, allows players to interact with the game over a long period of time.

“The game is also used as a tool for research in areas like shared information in supply chains, where we find that the more shared information, the more efficient the supply chain,” said Corsi.

Further research will focus on software services to make game instantiation easier and to further support development and use of simulation-based supply chain management games.

The Distributor Game was jointly developed the the Robert H. Smith School of Business and the Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands. “Training for Today’s Supply Chains: An Introduction to the Distributor Game” was co-authored by Thomas Corsi, Sandor Boyson, Stijn-Pieter A. van Houten, lecturer of faculty and technology, policy and management, Delft University of Technology, and Alexander Verbraeck, Chair, Systems Engineering Section, Delft University of Technology, and presented at the 2005 Winter Simulation Conference in Orlando, Florida.

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty masters, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.