Mr Glen Netherwood
Department of Manufacturing Systems Engineering
Melbourne, Victoria, 3083
Throughout 1995 the author developed a computer
based tutorial-simulation to support undergraduate studies into
ways of planning and controlling production in manufacturing companies.
This was funded by a CAUT National Teaching Development Grant.
This paper describes the experience of using the completed development
in undergraduate teaching in 1996. It also discusses the directions
for future work.
Throughout 1995 the author developed the software
for a computer based tutorial-simulation to support undergraduate
studies into ways of planning and controlling production in manufacturing
companies . This was funded by a CAUT National Teaching Development
Grant. The prototype development, which is called Materials Manager,
was ready for use with students in early 1996.
In 1996 the emphasis moved from developing the software
to establishing how to use it in undergraduate learning. During
1996 Materials Manager has been used with two groups of students
from the Bachelor of Applied Science in Manufacturing Operations.
An evaluation of this was carried out in conjunction with the
RMIT Educational Program Improvement Group. A short informational
video is available.
This paper describes the reaction of students to
Materials Manager. It discusses the key features developments
of this nature must possess to be successful, and ways they can
be incorporated into an overall learning program.
2. Description of Materials Manager
Materials Manager is a Tutorial-Simulation which
is used in conjunction with a series of exercises. It addresses
ways of planning and controlling production in small manufacturing
companies involved in batch manufacture. Students use the methods
commonly used by such companies to order raw materials and schedule
production to meet the continuously changing customer demand.
Student performance is measured by their ability to achieve financial
targets, whilst maintaining high levels of customer service.
Materials Manager uses high-quality three-dimensional
animations to create a convincing environment. The interface is
similar in look and feel to commercial computer games.
Context-sensitive feedback is provided by simulated
'e-mail' messages from other members of the 'organisation'. These
provide the 'tutorial' element of the 'tutorial-simulation'. Representing
these canned messages as e-mail messages maintains the authenticity
of the milieu; it gives students a sense of the organisational
structure. Students are free to reject the 'advice' if they do
not agree with it.
Students work through the simulation period by period.
Success is not a matter of 'getting the right answer' but establishing
and implementing a consistently successful strategy over all the
periods. Decisions must balance the short and long term needs
of the organisation.
Students can save the session at any stage, and so
try again with an alternative approach - a random component ensures
that the data is different every time a session is repeated.
3. The Reasons for a Tutorial Simulation Approach
Undergraduate students do not have any background
or conception of the issues involved in Manufacturing Planning
and Control. It is not something which can be provided through
laboratory sessions, site visits, or even practicums. Planning
and Control is intangible, the various functions involved are
distributed over many areas of the organisation. The cycle from
material ordering to customer delivery is usually several weeks,
and it takes weeks or months of observation to start to make sense
of what is happening.
In any case, it is hard for any observer to appreciate
the complexities involved and to see the point of the formal,
analytical systems. It requires first-hand experience of managing
the process. Students tend to see the subject as an academic abstraction
remote from the real world. As one student put it, "I can
see what you are getting at, but a company would probably use
a more common-sense approach."
It is equally hard to give students the authentic
experience necessary to achieve a conceptual understanding. Conventional
teaching approaches tend to emphasise the analytical aspects and
to treat the subject as a series of distinct topics. This approach
does not develop the ability to recognise trends, patterns and
inter-relationships, formulate strategies and apply sound judgement
which are at the heart of the subject.
4. The Learning Objectives
Laurillard  discusses the importance of authentic
experience, and situated learning. She makes the point that "Perhaps
some ideal final product could be represented as a knowledge structure,
but learning is more realistically seen as an activity and knowledge
as an aspect of that activity, and therefore not easily abstracted
Even if it is possible in principal to treat knowledge
as an abstract Platonic form, in practice it is far easier to
relate it to things within the students' direct experience. This
is certainly the case in materials management because we are not
dealing with a discipline rigorously derived from first principles,
but methods developed largely through custom and practice.
There is increasing pressure to produce graduates
who are relevant to industry. Industry expects universities to
develop graduates who not only have academic ability but organisational
skills, communication skills, business skills, initiative and
similar attributes which enable graduates to accept early responsibility.
The objectives for Materials Manager are as follows:
To give students a knowledge and appreciation of
the operation of the materials management system, and the activities
of the manager. To provide students with an understanding of
how the planning process copes with an ever-changing and uncertain
To give students an arena where they can manage the
process, test their conceptions, reflect on them and modify them
in the light of what happens. To give them experience as practitioners
on which they can build, as Laurillard puts it  "not just
to perform the procedure, but also to stand back from that and
see why it is necessary, where it fits and does not fit, distinguish
situations where it is needed from where it is not, ie. carry
out the authentic activities of the subject expert."
To develop in students the attributes which are necessary
to practitioners. These include the ability to take a strategic
view, exercise judgement, make decisions based on incomplete information,
reflect on the consequences of past decisions, and identify patterns
and trends. They also include organisational skills and the ability
to work as part of a team.
To encourage in students reflection-in-action. To
encourage them to ask themselves, as Schon  describes it, "What
features do I notice when I recognise this thing? What are the
criteria by which I make this judgement? What procedures am I
enacting when I perform this skill? How am I framing the problem
that I am trying to solve?"
To give students a conceptual framework, from which
they can develop the abstract theoretical concepts of the subject.
To give them a generalised conceptual model of the role of materials
management, which can be extended to all manufacturing environments.
As Laurillard reminds us , "The point of an academic education
is that knowledge has to be abstracted and represented
formally in order to become generalisable and therefore more generally
5. The Students
During 1996 Materials Manager was used in the Bachelor
of Applied Science in Manufacturing Operations. This is a three
year program which attracts students from diverse backgrounds,
including students entering from year 12, students articulating
from TAFE, mature-age students, and international students.
In the first semester Materials Manager was used
in the first year subject Manufacturing Management (MS902). This
is an introductory subject intended to give a broad overview of
the subject area, including Manufacturing Planning and Control.
It provides a context for later subjects which cover the topics
in more depth.
In the second semester Materials Manager was used
in the second year subject Manufacturing Planning & Control
(MS919). This subject follows on from MS902.
6. The Facilities
Materials Manager needs a Pentium-based personal
computer to give reasonable performance. Most of the general laboratory
machines are '486 based. Materials Manager was used in a small
teaching laboratory which contains only seven stand-alone machines,
and is reserved for small groups of students using high-end applications.
This was a considerable handicap because too many
students were at each machine, and the laboratory was cramped
and congested. Logistical problems prevented the class being divided
into smaller groups, although this will be done in future.
This was not a problem for students doing their assignments,
who could schedule their own times. Some of the students installed
the software on their home computers.
7. The Approach to the Evaluation
The sessions with the first year students (MS902)
were evaluated in conjunction with the RMIT Educational Program
The evaluation was exploratory; it was to gain an
understanding of the student response to the resource in order
to achieve the following objectives:
(i) to gain an understanding of how students relate
to the tutorial-simulation approach, and the effectiveness of
(i) to establish how best to develop the exercises
and methodologies required to develop Materials Manager into a
complete learning resource.
(i) to establish future directions for the development
of the Materials Manager tutorial-simulation software.
As the software had not been used before, part of
the process was to progressively eliminate bugs and similar teething
problems. Fortunately there were relatively few.
8. The Learning Program with the First Year Students
The students were not particularly fluent with computers,
but they managed to use the interface and menu system without
assistance. Their initial reaction was enthusiastic; the attractive
graphics and animation appealed to them. They particularly enjoyed
the animations of the delivery trucks, which gave a sense of fun.
During the first session the students worked through
a tutorial sheet which contained exercises designed to help them
explore the menu system and discover the various features. They
were asked to answer several questions from the tutorial sheet
and to complete a questionnaire.
The students worked well. As the session progressed
they started to take a more considered approach to the task. It
was easy to work with them, to diagnose their misconceptions and
to clear up problems.
It was remarkable how quickly the students picked
up the jargon and concepts of manufacturing, concepts which had
largely eluded them using more traditional teaching methods.
At the start of the session they were intrigued by
the animations, but did not take a directed approach to the task.
As the session progressed they started to make focussed decisions
and start to apply ideas previously covered in lectures. Different
groups had quite distinct styles of operation, but they all worked
well as a team.
This hands-on activity was followed by a classroom
session. This included review and discussion of the exercises
and tuition and group work on aspects which students found confusing.
Again, the ability to refer back to the simulation made it easy
to explain things in concrete, rather than abstract, terms. The
students were also more interested because they saw the material
in practical terms and realised that they would have to apply
it shortly in the simulation, and ultimately in the workforce.
In the second and subsequent practical sessions the
students were given the more open-ended task of performing the
duties of the Production Planner. They were given suggestions
about how to approach the task, but these were quite flexible.
Most of the students worked well in these sessions, although the
congestion in the laboratory made it difficult for them to concentrate.
Finally the students were given a group assignment.
This followed the same format as for the practical sessions. Their
task was to carry out the simulation over a period of eight weeks
(or more), and to get as good results as possible. In addition,
they were asked to write a brief report commenting on the operation
of the software.
The student performance on the exercise was excellent.
I thought it might be too much of a challenge, but in fact all
groups bar one completed it successfully - and that group made
a good attempt. Two groups achieved a perfect score.
After the sessions, students were asked to reflect
on their experience. It was pleasing to note that they spoke in
general terms. They identified the importance of teamwork, of
cooperation and of taking a methodical approach.
9. The Learning Program with the Second Year Students.
The greater maturity and background of the second
year group helped them to become confident with Material Manager
more quickly. This was fortunate because the syllabus was more
crowded, and after two practical sessions they were left with
the assignment. As with the first year group, they were asked
to take on the role of Production Planner, but the exercise was
Each group was asked to submit a report discussing
how they went about the task, their reasons for selecting a strategy
and for making various decisions, how they worked as a team and
how they overcame problems and difficulties. This assignment is
not due until after the submission date for this paper.
Extracts from the assignment sheet are shown in Table
1. As well as encouraging students to reflect on their approach
to the task, the assignment was designed to gather information
on the extent to which the learning objectives were achieved.
10. Performance Against Objectives
All the students learned to carry out the main functions
of Materials Manager very quickly. They were quick to grasp the
relationship between the simulation and its counterpart physical
factory, and to use the correct terminology in conversation. Abstract
concepts, such as 'Raw Material' and 'Batch', took on a real meaning.
They also quickly grasped the concept and implications of batch manufacture. This is a key concept; many students assume that all manufacture is continuous process or mass production. They find it hard to come to terms with batch manufacture, much less the distinction between the various categories. Materials Manager makes it explicit.
|How did you go about the exercise? How did you decide on lead times, order quantities, inventory levels, safety stock and other parameters?||Establish level against context. (Performance level responses indicate comfort with Context level)|
|Did you have any times when things were particularly difficult? What were the problems, and how did you go about overcoming them?||Context/Performance. Open ended to find if the approach was ad hoc, analytical, strategic or other.|
|How did you balance the use of the high level planning tools (MPS, MRP, RCCP, CRP) with Production Activity Control (Placing orders directly, queue sequencing etc)?||Performance - level of strategic ability.|
|How did you work as a group? What did each member of the group contribute, what were their strengths? Be specific.||Performance - level of teamwork, and organisational skills.|
In the early stages they tended to focus on a single aspect at
a time. With experience they began to work with the inter-relationships.
For example they learned to predict the amount and timing of raw
materials, and to take into consideration the effect on cash flow.
They also learned to watch for trends and patterns in the available
data, and to estimate quantities.
In the subsequent classroom sessions there was an absence of the
usual misconceptions. Students distinguished between cause and
effect. They understood which variables the manager can control,
and which are imposed by external factors. They were quick to
grasp the concepts, and there were perceptive comments and questions.
Students recognised the skills they would need as practitioners.
They recognised the relevance of concepts they had covered in
class, such as the Level and Chase Production strategies. In follow-up
discussions, when asked the most important thing they had got
out of the experience they volunteered high level concepts such
as 'Teamwork', 'Organisation', 'Methodical'. In their exercises
each group used a conscious strategy to anticipate the amount
and timing of material requirements. They showed a sense of direction
and purpose. They started to apply the concepts they had learnt
in the class.
The groups which managed to get a perfect score adopted the devious
strategy of winding down stocks of raw material and work in process
progressively as the end date approached. They recognised that
there was no longer any need to look out for the long term, and
so shrewdly developed a separate approach for the 'end-game'.
The exercises did not explicitly address the issue
of encouraging students to form a generalised model. In fairness
to the students, Material Manager was introduced cautiously. The
conventional classes dealt with the more abstract theory and the
ways in which it is extended to other manufacturing environments.
The level of interest, attendance and discussion
in these classroom sessions was unusually high. The questions
were perceptive, and there were fewer instances of gross misconceptions.
The contextual experience and interest engendered by Materials
Manager gave students a good background in the subject.
On the other hand, students found it difficult to
extend the experience of Materials Manager to either the abstract
case of materials management systems in general, or to other manufacturing
environments. This is the area for attention in 1997.
11. Reflections on the Reactions of the Students
The students took a positive attitude to Materials
Manager. They spoke highly of the experience, and saw it as relevant
and practical. They appreciated the opportunity to become active
participants in the learning process. They felt it was relevant
to industry, and their career aspirations.
Materials Manager developed the desired strategic
abilities in students, which would not have been catered for in
a conventional treatment. These abilities are demanded by industry
and will serve students well in their future careers.
Student performance in conventional assessment using
abstract text-book style questions was about the same as usual.
Most students performed well. Some students performed well with
Materials Manager, but still could not relate to the concepts
when they were couched in more abstract terms, and which applied
to more generalised manufacturing problems. During the classroom
sessions the interest level was higher than usual, and the level
of discussion and questioning was better.
Overall there was a net gain. Students gained in
performance related skills and maintained at least the same level
in abstraction. The next stage is to help more students achieve
the abstraction level.
12. Achieving the Abstraction Level
The tutorial-simulation approach gives students experiential
knowledge. To achieve the abstraction level we must use this experiential
knowledge to bring the student to an abstract understanding of
the generalised concepts of materials management.
The experience so far suggests that this is too big
a leap for the students to make in one go. They were not able
to grasp the two-way process by which conceptual knowledge supports
experiential knowledge, and experiential knowledge supports conceptual
To achieve this the connection must be made quite
explicit at the level of specific exercises and examples. Materials
Manager must be intertwined with other activities which encourage
students to take a reflective approach. This must also be done
in a way which provides them with positive feedback, with increased
success convincing them that using the conceptual model is worthwhile.
13. Key Features for Success
The work so far has shown that Materials Manager
provides effective support for student learning. It fits in with
the general direction of higher education, to achieve increased
efficiency through technology. One key to the success of Materials
Manager has been that the interface creates a sense of 'fun'.
This gives students a positive attitude; they get off to a good
start with the software and they start with an initial feeling
The graphical interface appealed to the students.
They approached learning with a positive, confident and enthusiastic
attitude. They entered into the spirit of the thing. They tried
to succeed for the challenge. They saw that the material was relevant
to their future career, not just necessary to pass an examination.
The interface has also captured the imagination of educationalists,
academics and industrialists who have seen the package - it provided
The cost and effort involved in developing Materials
Manager can only be justified if it is used widely. It must become
a successful product. To achieve this it must be attractive to
a significant proportion of lecturers teaching in the area. They
must be able to see the benefit immediately and implement it in
classes after a short period of familiarisation. It must fit with
their preferred teaching method, and it must be easy for them
to learn and adopt. They must also be able to adapt it to their
own particular requirements.
Materials Manager will be supplied as a package,
with a set of integrated activities which can be extended by the
lecturer as required. The software incorporates a question generator
which allows the lecturer to extend and customise the exercises
to the level and needs of their class. The pattern of demand can
be modified to bring out a particular strategy. The costs, structures
and other parameters can be changed to suit a particular industry.
Materials Manager was tested on two groups of students.
Each group had several hands-on sessions with the software, this
was followed up in classroom-based sessions and a major assignment.
The students took a positive view of Materials Manager,
and benefited from it. The opportunity to visualise the factory,
and work with it, gave them a grasp of concepts which had previously
Materials manager was effective in building up the
skills required of the practitioner. Students performed extremely
well on the exercises and developed an appreciation of what would
be expected from them in industry. It also developed greater enthusiasm
for the subject and understanding of the underlying concepts.
There are two tasks for 1997. The first is to use
the experience gained to develop ways of using Materials Manager
to extend students' understanding to the abstract and general
cases. The second is to convert Materials Manager to a product
which will be adopted by subject lecturers, and which will lead
to its widespread use.
Materials Manager was funded by a 1995 CAUT National
Teaching Development Grant.
The support of the RMIT Educational Performance Improvement
Group is also gratefully acknowledged. Particular thanks are due
to John Milton for his help with the evaluation, and for his unfailing
advice and guidance throughout the project.
I would also like to acknowledge the contribution
of Margaret Netherwood, of 'Margaret in Cyberspace', http://werple.net.au/~margaret/
in making the graphics so attractive to the students.
 Netherwood G. (1996)
Developing a Tutorial-Simulation for Student Learning of Materials Management.
Proceedings of the 1996 IEEE International Conference on Multi Media Education
 Laurillard D. (1993)
Rethinking University Teaching: a framework for the effective use of educational technology.
 Schon D, A. (1983)
The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action.
Glen Netherwood (c) 1996. The author assigns to ASCILITE and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author also grants a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE 96 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World WideWeb. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.