Using a Tutorial Simulation in Manufacturing Planning & Control

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.

1. Introduction

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 [1]. 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 [2] 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 from it"

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:

4.1. Context

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 world.

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 [2] "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."

4.2. Performance

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 [3] 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?"

4.3. Abstraction

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 [2], "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 useful".

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 Improvement Group.

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 the approach.

(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 more challenging.

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

10.1. Context

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.
Assignment Question
Notes on Learning Objective
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.
Table 1: Extract from the second year assignment, with associated learning objectives

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.

10.2. Performance

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'.

  1. Abstraction

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 knowledge.

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 of confidence.

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 immediate appeal.

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.

14. Conclusion

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 eluded them.

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', in making the graphics so attractive to the students.


[1] Netherwood G. (1996)

Developing a Tutorial-Simulation for Student Learning of Materials Management.

Proceedings of the 1996 IEEE International Conference on Multi Media Education

Melbourne, Australia

[2] Laurillard D. (1993)

Rethinking University Teaching: a framework for the effective use of educational technology.

Routledge, London

[3] Schon D, A. (1983)

The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action.

Basic Books

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.