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What is Simulation? What Does it Mean? (Definition and Examples)


A simulation imitates the operation of real world processes or systems with the use of models. The model represents the key behaviours and characteristics of the selected process or system while the simulation represents how the model evolves under different conditions over time.

Simulations are usually computer-based, using a software-generated model to provide support for the decisions of managers and engineers as well as for training purposes. Simulation techniques aid understanding and experimentation, as the models are both visual and interactive.

Simulation systems include discrete event simulation, process simulation and dynamic simulation. Businesses may use all of these systems across different levels of the organisation.


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What Does it Mean?

A simulation is a model that mimics the operation of an existing or proposed system, providing evidence for decision-making by being able to test different scenarios or process changes. This can be coupled with virtual reality technologies for a more immersive experience.

Simulations can be used to tune up performance, optimise a process, improve safety, testing theories, training staff and even for entertainment in video games! Scientifically modelling systems allows a user to gain an insight into the effects of different conditions and courses of action.

Simulation can also be used when the real system is inaccessible or too dangerous to assess or when a system is still in the design or theory stages.

Key to any simulation is the information that is used to build the simulation model and protocols for the verification and validation of models are still being researched and refined, particularly with regard to computer simulation.

How Simulation Works

Simulation works through the use of intuitive simulation software to create a visual mock-up of a process. This visual simulation should include details of timings, rules, resources and constraints, to accurately reflect the real-world process.

This can be applied to a range of scenarios, for example, you can model a supermarket and the likely behaviours of customers as they move around the shop as it becomes busier. This can inform decisions including staffing requirements, shop floor layout, and supply chain needs.

Another example would be a manufacturing environment where different parts of the line can be simulated to assess how their processes interact with those of others. This can provide an overview of how the entire system will perform in order to devise innovative methods to improve performance.


There are a range of advantages to be gained through the use of simulation, including:

1. Less Financial Risk

Simulation is less expensive than real life experimentation. The potential costs of testing theories of real world systems can include those associated with changing to an untested process, hiring staff or even buying new equipment. Simulation allows you to test theories and avoid costly mistakes in real life.

2. Exact Repeated Testing

A simulation allows you to test different theories and innovations time after time against the exact same circumstances. This means you can thoroughly test and compare different ideas without deviation.

3. Examine Long-Term Impacts

A simulation can be created to let you see into the future by accurately modelling the impact of years of use in just a few seconds. This lets you see both short and long-term impacts so you can confidently make informed investment decisions now that can provide benefits years into the future.

4. Gain Insights for Process Improvement

The benefits of simulation are not only realised at the end of a project. Improvements can be integrated throughout an entire process by testing different theories.

5. Assess Random Events

A simulation can also be used to assess random events such as an unexpected staff absence or supply chain issues.

6. Test Non-Standard Distributions

A simulation can take account of changing and non-standard distributions, rather than having to repeat only set parameters. For example, when simulating a supermarket you can input different types of customer who will move through the shop at different speeds. A young businesswoman who is picking up a sandwich will move through the shop differently from an old couple or a mother doing a weekly shop with two children in tow. By taking such changing parameters into account, a simulation can more accurately mimic the real world. 

7. Encourages In-Depth Thinking

Even the process of designing a simulation and determining the different parameters can offer solutions. By thinking in-depth about a process or procedure it is possible to come up with solutions or innovations without even using the final simulation.

8. Improve Stakeholder Buy-In

A visual simulation can also help improve buy-in from partners, associates and stakeholders. You can visually demonstrate the results of any process changes and how they were achieved, improving engagement with interested parties or even enabling a simulation based sales pitch.


While there are a great many advantages to using simulation, there are still some limitations when compared to other similar techniques and technologies, such as digital twin.

A digital twin expands on simulation to incorporate real time feedback and a flow of information between the virtual simulation and a real life asset or assets. The difference being that while a simulation is theoretical, a digital twin is actual.

Due to this, simulations have limitations when it comes to assessing actual real-world situations as they occur.

Why is Simulation Used?

Simulation is used to evaluate the effect of process changes, new procedures and capital investment in equipment. Engineers can use simulation to assess the performance of an existing system or predict the performance of a planned system, comparing alternative solutions and designs.

Simulation is used as an alternative to testing theories and changes in the real world, which can be costly. Simulation can measure factors including system cycle times, throughput under different loads, resource utilisation, bottlenecks and choke points, storage needs, staffing requirements, effectiveness of scheduling and control systems.

What can be Simulated?

Any system or process that has a flow of events can be simulated. As a general rule, if you can draw a flowchart of the process, you can simulate it. However, simulation is most effective when applied to processes or equipment that change over time, have variable factors or random inputs. For example, our supermarket from earlier has variable and random factors due to customer use times, requirements and stocks.

Using simulation to model complex and changeable dynamic systems can offer insights that are difficult to gain using other methods.

While simulation can be used to manage processes, procedures and assets, Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom took the notion of simulation further in his 2003 paper, ‘Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?’ He argues that by adding artificial consciousness to simulations, you can blur the lines between reality and simulation, making it difficult to tell if you are living in reality or if you are living in a simulation. This simulation hypothesis argues that, should you become aware that your ‘reality’ was not actually ‘real,’ your memories could be edited by the simulation to once again make you blissfully unaware that you are not actually a real person in the real world!

Moving away from the realms of post-human simulation, let’s return to some ‘real world’ types of simulation…

Types of Simulation

Simulation can be broken down into three overarching types, as follows:

1. Discrete Event Simulation

Modelling a system as it progresses through time, for example;

  • factory operations (stamping, turning, milling)
  • traffic analysis (roads, networks, queues)

2. Dynamic Simulation

Modelling a system as it progresses through space, for example;

  • machine kinematics
  • human ergonomics
  • aerodynamic testing
  • virtual prototyping

3. Process Simulation

Modelling physical interactions between two or more systems, for example;

  • in-service product modelling
  • in-manufacture product modelling
  • weather forecasting


There are many examples of simulation across industry, entertainment, education, and more. Here are a few notable examples:


Simulation allows the characteristics of a real vehicle to be replicated in a virtual environment, so that the driver feels as if they are sitting in a real car. Different scenarios can be mimicked so that the driver has a fully immersive experience. These type of simulators can help train both new and experienced drivers, offering a route to teach driving skills that can reduce maintenance and fuel costs and ensure the safety of the drivers themselves.


Simulation can be applied to biomechanics to create models of human or animal anatomical structures in order to study their function and design medical treatments and devices. Biomechanics simulation can also be used to study sports performance, simulate surgical procedures, and assess joint loads. An additional example is neuromechanical simulation that unites neural network simulation with biomechanics to test hypotheses in a virtual environment.

City and Urban Planning

Simulation can be used to design new cities and urban environments as well as to test how existing urban areas can evolve as a result of policy decisions. This includes city infrastructure and traffic flow among other potential models.

Digital Lifecycle Design

Simulations can assist with product design, allowing digital prototyping and testing to create better performing products with a shorter time-to-market, while also assessing the lifecycle of the finished product.

Disaster Preparation

Simulations can replicate emergency situations, to help with disaster preparedness.This includes training and designing responses to events such as natural disasters, pandemics or terrorist attacks. Responses can be tracked and assessed through the simulation, highlighting potential problems and areas where more training may be required for responders, as well as ensuring any mistakes are made in a safe environment ahead of any real life event.  

Economics and Finance

Economics, macroeconomics and finance also benefit from simulations. A mathematical model of the economy can, for example, be tested using historical data as a proxy for the actual economy. This can be used to assess inflation, unemployment, balance of trade and budgets.Elsewhere, simulations can replicate the stock exchange or be used to test financial models. Banks also use simulations to replicate payment and securities settlement systems.

Engineering Systems

Simulation is widely used for engineering systems to imitate operations and functions of equipment, processes and procedures. Engineering simulations can combine mathematical models and computer-assisted simulation for design or improvement of existing processes.


Simulation can be used to analyse virtual products and working environments incorporating an anthropometric virtual representation of the human, also known as a mannequin or Digital Human Model (DHM). These DHMs can mimic the performance and capabilities of humans in simulated environments. This type of simulation has applications ranging from assembly lines to disaster management and video gaming to waste collection.

Flight Simulation

Flight simulators have been used for years to train new pilots in a safe environment. This not only allows pilots to be assessed safely, but can also test instrument failures and other problems without risking the pilot, the instructor or the aircraft. You can also easily repeat the exact same scenarios, such as approaching a runway to land, under different conditions, not to mention saving fuel and other costs compared to actual flying time.

Marine Craft Simulation

Much like flight simulation, it is also possible to simulate working in a ship or submarine. Simulators can include those that mimic the bridge, engine rooms, cargo handling bays, communications or remotely operated vehicles. These are used in training institutions, colleges and navies.

Military Applications

Sometimes referred to as ‘war games,’ military simulations can be used to test out military plans in a virtual environment using computer models. These can also incorporate social and political factors and are used by governments and military organisations around the world.

Network Systems

Simulations have been applied to network and distributed systems to test new algorithms and protocols before they are implemented in live systems. These can be applied to applications including content delivery networks, smart cities and the Internet of Things.

Project Management

Simulation can be used for project management analysis and training purposes. Whether training managers or analysing the outcomes of different decisions, simulation is frequently conducted with software tools.


Robotics simulations are used to mimic situations that may not be possible to recreate and test in real life due to time, cost or other factors. The results of these tests can then be assessed and transferred to real life robots.

Production Systems

Production systems can be simulated using methods such as discrete event simulation to assess manufacturing processes, assembly times, machine set-up, and more.


Sales can be simulated to examine the flow of transactions and customer orders as well as costs, labour times and more. 

Satellites and Space

The Kennedy Space Centre used simulation to train space shuttle engineers for launch operations. This would see people interact with a simulated shuttle and ground support equipment. Simulation is also used for satellite navigation tests.


Statistics are widely used as part of sport simulation to predict the outcome of events and the performance of individual sportspeople. Sports simulation can also be used to predict the outcome of games and events as well as for fantasy sports leagues. Biomechanics models can also be used to assist training, assess fatigue levels and their effect on performance and more.


Weather forecasting uses simulations based on past data to predict extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes or cyclones.


Simulations are used for a range of applications across industry, saving time and expense while being able to test theories and ideas before implementing them in the real world. Although related techniques such as digital twin may provide added benefits due to the two-way flow of information this allows, simulations still have a great many uses.

Whether testing theories, assessing procedural performance or determining the lifecycle of an asset simulation is a useful tool for many businesses and organisations.

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