Always a better way: The staying power of an ISE career

Always a better way: The staying power of an ISE career

ISE Magazine September 2019 Volume: 51 Number: 9

By Casey R. Spansel

Industrial and systems engineering is founded on the idea that there is always a better way, a mantra that rings true in all aspects of life. This article demonstrates the unique-ness of this discipline and the impact and breadth of its applications.

What is it that makes businesses tick these days? Is it innovation? Brutal efficiency? Unparalleled quality? Elevated customer service? It most likely is all of these. Is it possible to achieve all of these things without sacrificing one for the other? Arguably. But who possesses the tools to make this a reality? These questions, at first glance, may seem rhetorical, but there are people who are specially trained in these areas: In-dustrial and systems engineers.

ISE remains a misunderstood and overlooked discipline not only in the realm of engineering but also in the business world. Its roots date as far back as the Industrial Revolution, a time that marked the beginning of mass production in factories. It was then that pioneers Frederick Taylor and Frank and Lillian Gilbreth revolutionized time and motion studies, the back-bone of the ISE discipline. ISE is not new to the game, nor its applications and techniques. Given this information, why is it that, during a time when these skills are most coveted by companies, ISEs still remain in the shadows of other engineering disciplines?

As an industrial and systems engineer, allow me to intro-duce some facts into this argument that include the business impact of ISEs, their staying power even with the dawn of In-dustry 4.0 and the unique skill set that separates us from other engineers and business majors.

ISE: Individual, salient, enduring

These three words are what I believe encompass the attributes of an industrial and systems engineer:

  • Individual: having striking or unusual characteristics
  • Salient: most noticeable or important
  • Enduring: continuing or long-lasting

Individual. An exploration of these characteristics begins at the academic level in a comparison of undergraduate studies of industrial engineers, mechanical engineers and civil engi-neers at Louisiana State University. Figure 1 (Page 46) displays the contrast between these disciplines. While core classes re-main in line with each other, industrial engineering drastically shifts away from mechanical and civil engineering once the student reaches the fifth semester of studies. The ISE curricu-lum arguably constitutes more of a business case and contains more of what businesses are moving toward in this day and age: basic and advanced statistics, lean manufacturing, quality control and Six Sigma and supply chain

While ISEs share a similar skill set as other engineering disciplines, such as problem-solving and critical thinking, what makes industrial engineering unique is where its focus lies: optimization. In “What It Takes To Be a World Class Engineer,” Brian Sage states that optimization is linked to a company’s financial strength because of resource allocation and the ability to streamline processes and reduce costs.

It should be noted that this is not just limited to manufacturing; it’s something all businesses strive to accomplish within their organization, and thus inherently diverse in its application. Companies can benefit from this application of knowledge to one’s business, and the results from these improvements are visible through a number of different performance indicators, in addition to monetary gains.

Salient. ISEs are taught the skills needed to look at an organization in a broader sense and are equipped with a crucial mix of business and technical skills. Businesses require engineers to solve not only engineering problems but customer, organizational and stakeholder problems. Adding organizational context and business context helps broaden engineers’ problem-solving skills and allows them to make critical business decisions.

This field of study also has a large impact on business be-cause one needs to look at a much larger picture than that of other engineering disciplines. Eliyahu Goldratt points out in The Goal that when applying a methodology such as Theory of Constraints, one must view how increasing throughput on one bottleneck affects other processes involved, and what other bottlenecks may be produced as a result. He goes on to state that one must look at the monetary implications of making these changes; information about costs and production progress should also not only be fed back to the bottlenecks, but also as a way to foresee and avoid problems. In other words, to be an effective industrial engineer, one must not only create solutions, but also view possible outcomes of how the solutions affect the entire system.

Enduring. Manufacturing, in addition to other industries, is moving toward high-tech automation of processes and tasks.

Where do ISEs fit into the world of automation and how can process improvement methods be applied to something automated when there are few or no people working on tasks within a manufacturing facility or business?

Many in manufacturing industries no doubt have indulged in fantasies of a fully automated facility where robots of all shapes and sizes do jobs for which they were programmed, from manufacturing to quality control, assembling and shipping finished goods. While this may be a novel concept, execution and maintenance of such a high-tech system proves to be a pains-taking process. Not even Toyota Production Systems, a company well-known for operational excellence, is immune to the problems that arise from automating too much too fast.

Not to condemn those who dream of a fully automated facility, but there is one important factor missing from these misguided fantasies of automation: people. This is where the enduring part comes into play for ISEs in that people are still a critical component in automated systems.

Bridging the gap

I began my studies at Louisiana State University in mechanical engineering, aspiring to design and create something that will change the world, like so many others. Those dreams were brought to a screeching halt when I reached thermodynamics class, when I realized this discipline was not for me.

Soon afterward, a friend from mechanical engineering told me she was switching to an industrial engineering major at the start of next semester and convinced me to look into it. After that encounter, and by doing due diligence and research, I decided to switch majors that following semester and never looked back.

What I didn’t know at the time was my journey started out like many others in industrial engineering whom I have met. For example, while conducting interviews for a summer internship position at my company, one question I ask candidates is “How did you hear about or end up in industrial and systems engineering?” Out of the 10 students interviewed, eight started out in a different field of study before switching majors to industrial and systems engineering, and most had not even heard of ISE beforehand.

There are too many instances of this for it to be coincidental, leading me to believe that outreach for industrial engineers in Louisiana and possibly other areas is virtually nonexistent. This can be attributed to a multitude of reasons, one of which is due to most contributions and deliverables of ISEs being in-tangible, unlike engines, rockets, bridges, apps or the other things engineers build and design. This also makes the subject matter difficult in trying to intrigue and engage a younger audience. While it may be beneficial to speak to businesses about how ISEs can improve their bottom line, that isn’t necessarily what a teenager dreams of doing. There are fewer of us than most disciplines, making the time-consuming job of outreach and raising awareness for the discipline more difficult.

Another issue ISEs face is being pigeonholed to manufacturing. Perhaps this view stems from its initial applications during the Industrial Revolution, making it difficult to part ways with the industry where it began. I would venture to say most employers see the word “industrial” and believe an ISE’s skills and knowledge are limited to traditional manufacturing. As stated above, this is a common misconception. However, industrial and systems engineering continues to gain attention outside of manufacturing in fields such as healthcare and government agencies, showcasing the breadth of the discipline’s applications.

With all of this in mind, how do we ensure the future of industrial and systems engineering remains intact? Start with the age old question of “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” Or in this case, which came first: job availability, small enrollment numbers in universities or little to no outreach?

The root cause of the problem lies in outreach and aware-ness of young adults, college-aged students and professionals. I earlier discussed outreach for young adults and at the university level, but it is also worth noting the paramount importance of increasing awareness in the professional world. Doing so will open new avenues, create more jobs and increase demand for the discipline. This, in turn, will increase enrollment numbers in universities and pique the interest of aspiring engineers everywhere.

There is always a better way

Somewhere along the way, I became disillusioned about the current state of industrial and systems engineering, resigned to the fact that maybe this is just the way things are and al-ways will be. When I read a piece by Kevin McManus in a recent ISE magazine, my hope was renewed and my feelings and observations about how the world views the profession felt justified. He wrote: “We definitely win the award for the least understood engineering discipline. Our challenge is get-ting others to see that we are capable of improving more than ‘just’ manufacturing operations and that perhaps our greatest contributions to the world of work can be made in nonindustrial arenas.”

The irony of the situation is not lost on me, and I refocused my attention on a fundamental concept that I had lost sight of: There is always a better way.

Focusing on what connects ISE to others is just as important as focusing on what sets us apart, which is the tireless effort of always finding a better way, or continuous improvement. The concept of continuous improvement is not foreign or new and is something most strive to execute, whether it be at a business or personal level. It is here that the true value of ISE lies, acting as a guide through the turbulent landscape of today’s world and ushering in the change required to keep progressing and marching forward.