A. Maffei1, P. Neves1, J. Dias Ferreira1, J. Barata2

1KTH Royal Institute of Technology (SWEDEN)
2Uninova (PORTUGAL)
The word “flexibility” is often abused and not univocally understood in manufacturing science, and in particular in the industrial automation domain. Since the raise of industrial robots in the 1960’, different researchers and practitioners have been using such a common word with different meanings. This has generated a very articulated concept, spanning from capability of a system to increase the production volumes to ability to handle product mix variation. Some authors have tried to count the current meanings of such a word in manufacturing and someone arrived to more than 50 [1]!. In spite of this fuzziness in both the definition and scope, the concept of flexibility remain one of the cornerstones in the curriculum of industrial and production engineers, and it appears in many courses along the bachelor and master studies. The apparent paradox that higher education institutions have to teach things that are not even well-defined and agreed in the scientific world is, in fact, quite a usual practice. In order to clarify what is, or should be, learnt this work analyzes first the established literature to extract a “working” characterization of the flexibility concept. The resulting understanding is then used to represent the experts’ perception of the topic which in turn is used as ideal level of understanding that a student should achieve her/himself when studying such a concept.

The second phase of the work aims at disclosing and classifying the multifaceted perceptions of flexibility that a class of industrial engineering students have after a specific course in production automation. The research approach is based on a phenomenographic analysis on a series of well-designed interviews to the students [2].

The collected data have consequently been structured in a finite set of clusters according of:
(1) the level of understanding of the key concept (as expressed in the Bloom’s taxonomy [3])
(2) the nature of the shown knowledge (as presented in the SOLO taxonomy [4]).

The classification is then the basis for defining an epistemological sound approach to develop suitable teaching and learning activities to ensure optimal acquisition of the concept of flexibility.

[1] A. K. Sethi and S. P. Sethi, "Flexibility in manufacturing: a survey," International journal of flexible manufacturing systems, vol. 2, pp. 289-328, 1990.
[2] F. Marton, "Phenomenography—describing conceptions of the world around us," Instructional science, vol. 10, pp. 177-200, 1981.
[3] B. S. Bloom, M. Engelhart, E. J. Furst, W. H. Hill, and D. R. Krathwohl, "Taxonomy of educational objectives: Handbook I: Cognitive domain," New York: David McKay, vol. 19, p. 56, 1956.
[4] J. B. Biggs and K. F. Collis, Evaluating the quality of learning: Academic Press New York, 1982.