The Winter Simulation Conference turns 50

A personal look at the past, present and future of the venerable conference as WSC prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary in Las Vegas on Dec. 3-6.

Winter Simulation Conference

By Michael C. Fu and Thomas J. Schriber

The Winter Simulation Conference (WSC) is an annual conference that promotes itself as “the premier international forum for disseminating recent advances in the field of system simulation.” WSC’s main focus has been on stochastic discrete-event simulation, but continuous (possibly deterministic, driven by differential equations, e.g., system dynamics) and combined discrete-continuous simulation can also be found, and the past decade has seen agent-based simulation take a regular and prominent role.

For the authors, it is by far our favorite professional conference, a meeting we look forward to each year and would not want to miss (with a couple of exotic exceptions for one of us, soon to be revealed). It is held annually in the month of December (hence the “Winter” name, although technically it no longer actually takes place in winter, i.e., after the winter solstice or the official first day of winter; and the very first conference actually took place in mid-November, but more on that shortly), and it has the following interesting characteristics, many of which are quite unique to WSC:

  1. The composition of attendees is split fairly evenly among academics, practitioners and government (mainly military), giving the meeting a flavor not found in many other conferences. This diversity also is reflected in the papers presented, which are split between methodology and application, as well as between research theory and industry (including government) practice.
  2. The location of the meeting rotates in a three-year cycle from the Washington, D.C., area to the South and to the West. Because it is held in December, the north is avoided, even though four of the first five meetings were held in New York City, to which it has never returned since. In fact, the first WSC actually using the “winter” moniker was the last one held in New York. This three-year cycle began in 1981, but like every good tradition was temporarily broken in 2012 to allow for the first international venue in Berlin (where the attendees were treated to a truly winter white blanket), to be encored in 2018 when WSC goes to Sweden (and to Singapore several years after that). Also, in 2010, the “D.C.” turn was held in Baltimore, ostensibly due to an attempt at cost savings, since D.C. had gotten quite expensive in terms of hotel rates. In any case, the return to the D.C. area allows some of us (and especially those in the federal government/military) to save on travel funds every third year.
  3. A refereed proceedings is published every year. Starting in 2000, it became freely available on the WSC website (wintersim.org), and issues are now available all the way back to 1968 (the first meeting that had actual papers), although the proceedings articles prior to 1996 are scanned PDF files and not text searchable. Best paper awards are now given annually by both the INFORMS and ACM simulation specialty subgroups.
  4. Three regular tutorial tracks – one at an introductory level, another at an advanced level and a third focusing on specific software (including vendor workshops all day on the Sunday immediately preceding the start of the conference). The first and last are targeted at those new to the field, and thus are ideal both for practitioners wishing to apply the modeling and analysis techniques and software implementations to their real-world problems and for graduate students wishing to do the same in their research. The second track is aimed primarily at more seasoned researchers, including graduate students. Tutorials have been an integral feature of WSC from its early days, and their success led to the adoption of tutorials into the INFORMS Annual Meeting program.
  5. A Ph.D. colloquium is held the Sunday afternoon immediately preceding the start of the conference on Monday. A best paper award also is given here.
  6. A popular lunchtime special session called the “Titans of Simulation,” which features nuggets of wisdom from leaders with vast experience in the simulation research community. This year’s two Titans are pioneers of the field who have also experienced all five decades of WSC: Robert G. Sargent, professor emeritus, Syracuse University; and Bernard P. Zeigler, professor emeritus, electrical and computer engineering, University of Arizona.
  7. A vendor exhibit area, offering demos of state-of-the-art products, began in 1984.
  8. Conference sponsors come from a diverse set of societies: INFORMS Simulation Society, ASA, ACM Special Interest Group on Simulation (ACM/SIGSIM), IEEE Systems, Man and Cybernetics Society (IEEE/SMCS), IISE, NIST, The Society for Modeling and Simulation International (SCS), and the most recently added sponsor, Arbeitsgemeinschaft Simulation (ASIM).

Welcoming WSC Community

The second author attended his first WSC in 1968 and, incredibly, has never missed it since, whereas his younger co-author started attending the WSC two decades later in 1988, and has missed the conference only twice in the nearly three decades since (both times when another competing conference took place on a faraway tropical U.S. island state).

The WSC community is incredibly open and welcoming, ready to incorporate new ideas into research and practice. This year’s general chair is Ernest H. Page, while Gabriel Wainer serves as program chair. The conference theme is “Simulation Everywhere!”

In addition to the main conference keynote and two Titan talks, the conference features two other regular keynotes dedicated to the military and manufacturing areas, this year being given by Stéphane Dauzère-Pérès (“Achievements and Lessons Learned from a Long-term Academic-Industrial Collaboration”) and Douglas Hodson (“Military Simulation: A Ubiquitous Future”), respectively.

As part of this year’s 50-year celebration, a special history track (see below) with its own keynote speaker (Brian Hollocks) has been added to the program.

This year’s WSC, which enjoys regular participation from the international simulation community, will be held Dec. 3-6 at the Las Vegas Red Rock Casino Resort.

Vision into the Future

Barry Nelson, professor, Department of Industrial Engineering & Management Sciences, Northwestern University, will deliver this year’s 50th Anniversary WSC keynote on Dec. 4. Source: William Browning

Barry Nelson, professor, Department of Industrial Engineering & Management Sciences, Northwestern University, will deliver this year’s 50th Anniversary Keynote on Dec. 4. His topic: “WSC 2067: What are the Chances?”

Based on his abstract, Professor Nelson’s remarks will span a full century of WSC, from its founding in 1967 to a prediction for its future 50 years hence, in 2067. Here’s an abstract of his talk:

“At the November 1967 ‘Conference on the Applications of Simulation Using GPSS’ it seems unlikely that anyone was wondering if the conference would still be occupying a big hotel in 2017. Conferences persist for many reasons, but a technical conference like WSC has to remain relevant to users, vendors, researchers and consumers (not just hotels) to survive. If our kind of simulation vanished, then so (eventually) would WSC. What is required for simulation to “remain relevant” for the next 50 years?

“Without fear of having to answer for my crimes in 2067, I boldly speculate on what SHOULD matter for the next 10-20 years, if not the next 50, with a focus on our strength: dealing with uncertainty.”

Although not mentioned in the abstract, Professor Nelson has been a proponent of a new paradigm called “Simulation Analytics” that is sure to be a part of his vision. As anyone who has ever heard Barry give a lecture knows, he’s a great speaker, provocative and able to reach every level of audience expertise.

A Special 50-Year History Celebration

The special History of Simulation track mentioned earlier will be coordinated by Bob Sargent and will be comprised of nine sessions covering the history of WSC, methodology, applications, international aspects and the computer simulation archive founded by Bob Sargent and Jim Wilson.

Separate from the official proceedings, the WSC is producing a special 50th anniversary celebration volume dedicated to the state of the art in simulation research. Entitled “Advances in Modeling and Simulation: Seminal Research from 50 Years of Winter Simulation Conferences,” the volume is edited by Andreas Tolk, John Fowler, Guodong Shao and Enver Yucesan.

In the WSC history track, the half-century is divided into the following periods: Origins and Early Years (1967-1974), Renaissance Period (1975-1982), Coming-of-Age Period (1983-1992), Period of Growth, Consolidation and Innovation (1993-2007) and Modern Period (2008-2017). For a preview of the very early years, see “Some Reminiscences from the Early Years” (see sidebar on page 34), as well as Wilson (1996 [1]).

Back to the Near Future

To find out more about WSC’s 50-year history and to see and hear what Barry Nelson, Robert Sargent, Bernard Zeigler and the other keynote speakers have to say about the past, present and future of simulation and the WSC, be sure to book your ticket to Vegas soon and be a part of the 50th anniversary celebration from Dec. 3-6.

To get a flavor of the present state of the art in the capabilities of simulation in its commercial form, see the biennial simulation software survey in this issue of OR/MS Today, faithfully conducted by Jim Swain, another longtime WSC veteran.

Michael C. Fu (mfu@umd.edu) holds the Smith Chair of Management Science in the Robert H. Smith School of Business (with a joint appointment in the Institute for Systems Research, A. James Clark School of Engineering) at the University of Maryland, College Park, and served as Program Chair for WSC in 2011.

Thomas J. Schriber (schriber@umich.edu) is a professor emeritus in the Technology and Operations Department of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. He served on the WSC Board of Directors, starting in 1978 and chaired the Board in 1982-83. He received The Lifetime Professional Achievement award from the INFORMS Simulation Society in 2001, was given a Landmark Paper Award at the 40th WSC in 2007, spoke as a Titan of Simulation at the 2009 WSC, and has presented one or more times at each of the 49 WSCs from 1968 through 2017. He also has been named a Pioneer of Simulation (http://d.lib.ncsu.edu/computer-simulation).

Acknowledgment

The authors thank Robert Sargent for his comments and suggestions.

References & Readings

  1. Wilson, J.R., 1996, “Winter Simulation Conference,” OR/MS Today, August, pp.68-70; also available at http://www.orms-today.org/orms-8-96/winter.html.

More Readings

More details about the WSC can be found on the website wintersim.org, which includes:

(i)     an in-depth updated description of the various aspects of WSC, including its history, program scope and administration, based on an OR/MS Today article by James R. Wilson in the August 1996 issue, and

(ii)     a listing of all of the previous WSC conferences held to date, with registered attendance stats, conference chairs, and proceedings co-editors: http://meetings2.informs.org/wordpress/wsc2017/past-conferences/

(iii)    in the 1992 Proceedings, a 25th anniversary keynote address and panel discussion.
Also of interest is the Computer Simulation Archive Website: https://d.lib.ncsu.edu/computer-simulation/

Reminiscences from the early years

What is now called the Winter Simulation Conference was the creation of Julian Reitman, Arnold Ockene and Harold G. Hixson. At the time, 1967, Reitman was a major user of GPSS in the Norden Division of United Aircraft. At IBM, Ockene was responsible for the marketing and support of GPSS. Hixson, an active GPSS user himself, was with the Air Force Logistics Command and was also the System Simulation Project Manager of SHARE (the IBM Scientific Users Group).

As Ockene later stated, “Julian was both a prolific model builder and a demanding advocate for ever more functions in GPSS.” During frequent Reitman-Ockene interactions, quoting Ockene further, “the topic of a conference devoted to applications of GPSS arose. We had little doubt that the time was appropriate for such a conference.”

Hixson arranged for SHARE to be a conference sponsor, and he became the general chair. The two-day conference took place in New York City, with Reitman as program chair and Ockene as publicity chair. There were 401 full-house attendees, and others had to be turned away. Thirty-four presentations took place. The conference was a resounding success, both technically and financially, triggering a plan to follow it with a successor in 1968.

The 1968 conference, which also took place in New York City, was named “The Second Conference on Applications of Simulation.” The scope of the conference was expanded to include applications based on any simulation language, not just GPSS, and also to include simulation material other than just applications. Reitman was the general chair, while Ockene served as the program chair. The attendees numbered 857. The stage had been set to continue with annual conferences, which, with a 1975 interruption (see below), have continued to this day.

The “Origins and Early Years” of the WSC span the 1967-74 interval. WSC, or “Winter Simulation Conference,” first became the complete name in 1973. During these early years, the WSC had no bylaws, no formal Board of Directors and no formal long-range planning procedures. The early years came to an end with the 1974 WSC, which, although successful in and of itself, was not then mapped into a 1975 WSC by those expected to do so. This could have been the death knell for the WSCs, but thanks to action taken by Robert G. Sargent, Paul Roth, Harold Joseph Highland and Thomas J. Schriber, a bootstrapped 1976 WSC did take place at the National Bureau of Standards in Maryland. This marked the beginning of what is now called the “Renaissance Period (1975-1982)” of the WSCs, characterized by the formation of bylaws, a Board of Directors, and long-range, multi-year planning procedures.