The Paper Plane Factory

Rahul De delves into a game he used in the first-year undergraduate economics class to teach concepts of production.

Image by Kris K from Pixabay

The discipline of economics studies individual and aggregate human behaviour. Research in economics simulates games to understand individual behaviour and predict aggregate outcomes under certain specified conditions. Games are a useful pedagogical tool too, as they teach participants how individuals react/​behave in a given situation. 

My aim in this article is to describe and explain a game that I have used in my first-year undergraduate economics class to teach concepts of production. This game is called The Paper Plane Factory’. The same game can be adapted for high school (Grade X‑XII) students too, as a lot of the concepts it teaches can be understood quite intuitively.

This course module will need to be diluted for middle school (Grade VII-IX) students.

Instructions for teachers

  1. This activity should be organised over two classes. The game itself should be conducted in one class. The second class should be used to discuss the activity and to teach the concepts introduced in this activity.
  2. This activity requires a lot of paper. Use newspapers/​used papers to avoid wastage. At least 100 sheets are required for a class of 40
  3. Divide the class into groups of different sizes like 2, 3, 5, 7, and 9. The minimum group size should be 2 and the maximum should be 9. Two groups can have the same number of students.
  4. Arrange the classroom such that there is one desk allocated to each team. Leave some room around each desk as this activity will become hectic.
  5. Each team should be given a sketch pen of a different colour.
  6. Bring another teacher to class as the quality control manager.
  7. Create a data entry sheet. You can use the following table.

Instructions to students

The following is the narrative that I shared with my students before starting the game. You can modify it according to your context. 

  1. The students have been hired as workers in different firms in the aviation industry. They are producing planes for the Indian Air Force. Since the Air Force only purchases planes of the highest quality, a quality control manager has been sent to inspect the quality of the planes produced by the firms.
    At this point, I introduced my colleague Ajit Sinha, who was suitably old and serious and thus looked the part. I further told the students that Ajit left the Air Force to become an economics teacher in the 1990s. As an ex-air force consultant, who designed the MIG 21 using Russian technology during the India-Pakistan War of 1971, Ajit has been sent by the Air Force to inspect the quality of the students’ planes and reject any that don’t meet the requirements. The point of this story is to generate some excitement and to get students to do this activity seriously.
    The Air Force requires that the planes be built with raw materials provided by their agents and using the technology designed by them. Each plane will be tested for quality before it is bought.
  2. Each team will try to maximise plane production in 3 minutes. However, they have to follow the instructions given and make planes of the requisite standard.
  3. Each paper plane will be made using half a sheet (A4 or one newspaper side). Show the students how to make a paper plane and ensure that at least one student from each team knows how to make one. The paper planes have to be made in the same manner as demonstrated by the teacher and the amount of paper used must be half a sheet, no more and no less.
  4. Each team has to work on their allocated desks.
  5. Each team will be given a sketch pen. Each plane has to have the firm’s name and school’s name’ airlines written on its wings. For example, University of Hyderabad Airlines. Any plane without a name on it will be disqualified.
  6. Raw materials (papers) will be provided by the teacher after the game starts. One team member, from each team, will be given one paper at a time. Once the paper is delivered to the workspace, then another paper may be procured. This is done because raw materials for paper planes are rare and have to be rationed.
  7. The activity will have 3 rounds. Each round will be for 3 minutes. After each round, the teams will place the finished planes in front of the quality control manager, who will determine the quality of the planes. First, ensure the planes have been made using the right size of paper and has the team name been written on it. The judge will launch each plane into the air and only those that fly for more than 10 feet will be approved. Before beginning the next round, take away all the spare paper remaining on each desk. After every round tabulate each teams total score in the data entry sheet.
  8. Fill out the sheet with the information generated and bring the data for discussion in the next class.

Results and discussion

  1. Announce the names of the teams with the highest average production per round (D). These are usually the teams with the largest number of workers.
  2. Announce the teams with the highest average production per worker. Usually small or medium sized teams will have higher productivity per worker.
  3. Ask each team to track its production per round. In general, team production will increase after each round, barring some exceptions.
  4. Compare the average production per team. This will generally decrease as the size of a firm increases.

I get my students to discuss the game’s results and give intuitive explanations for the results before explaining it using economic concepts. The following data was generated in my class. I am going to use it as an example to explain concepts of production in the next section.


1) Production of goods

Production of goods uses combinations of labour (students), raw material (paper), capital (table and pen) and technology (design of paper planes). Raw material refers to those products which get consumed (lose their tangible form) in the production process. Capital refers to those goods which do not lose their form in the process of production like computers, machines, buildings, etc.

The paper plane game demonstrates how different amounts of output are produced using the same capital (1 pen and 1 desk) and different amounts of labour. In the above table, Alpha uses 2 labour, 1 desk and 1 pen to produce 5 planes. Eagle uses seven labour, 1 desk and 1 pen to produce 10 airplanes. Production changes whenever the producer changes the amount of labour and capital in the production process. In this activity, labour is variable and capital is fixed. Firms look for the most efficient/​least cost combination of labour and capital to produce a certain product.

2) Learning by doing

Labour productivity improves by learning on the job. In the above table, the output of each team improved after every round of production. This is because the workers learned from their experiences in the previous round and improved their productivity. For example, Delta produced 8 planes in the first round, 12 in the second round and 14 in the third round. Productivity of workers increases through learning by doing.

3) Division of labour

Larger firms will produce more output. As the number of workers goes up, each worker takes on a specialised role in the production process. This increases the total production as each worker focuses on one aspect of production, which they repeat over and over again. 

For example, the two workers in team Alpha undertook all the responsibilities in the production process. They brought the paper, divided the paper into half, constructed the plane and wrote the team name on it. 

In team Charlie, however, each worker had a different role. One was in charge of getting the paper, one writing the team name on the plane, one was in charge of quality control and the other three made the paper planes. 

Division of labour and specialisation of jobs allow producers to increase their output. However, the division of labour is largely dependent on the management. Some teams with good teamwork will divide the work and produce a high quantity of planes; however, some groups will tend to fight with each other and each member will do things themselves. Firm Eagle produced only two planes in round one, as they did not work as a team and produced planes of sub-standard quality.

4) Diminishing marginal productivity

Production increases when labour is increased but by a decreasing proportion. In the above example, average production per labour is highest for team Alpha which has 2 workers, and lowest for team Eagle which has 7 workers. This phenomenon is referred to as the law of diminishing marginal productivity.

If capital remains constant and labour is increased then each individual worker’s productivity will fall. This is because the scarcity of capital hinders production. It is very difficult for seven workers to work at one desk. Similarly, because each firm had only one pen they could paint only one plane at a time, curbing their output. If each firm were given more desks and pens then their productivity would have been higher. 

Students participating in the game

Image Courtesy: Rahul De

Students tend to treat this activity as a competition, and disregard instructions. The execution of this activity requires careful planning and giving clear instructions to the students. It is important to reinforce the idea that all instructions must be followed.

Students can’t make smaller planes, use less paper, use different working spaces, etc. Sometimes larger groups struggle to work as a team and end up fighting. I used to give such teams instructions on how to work more efficiently, like dividing the tasks amongst the team members. 

Lastly, the data generated in this activity will not always show diminishing productivity. This can be explained by the fact that theories are not perfect explanations of human behaviour. Economics as a discipline, keeps learning and modifying its theories.


Credit for the image used at the beginning of the article: Kris K, Pixabay

This piece originally appeared in Teacher Plus.

De, R. (2016, June 6). Paper plane factory. Teacher Plus. https://​www​.teacher​plus​.org/​p​a​p​e​r​-​p​l​a​n​e​-​f​a​c​tory/