Industry Market Trends

Industrial Engineering Capabilities Crucial to a U.S. Manufacturing Resurgence

Oct 08, 2013

The expected manufacturing resurgence in the U.S. stands to benefit from the specialized skills of industrial engineers (IEs). As new shop floors open up, manufacturers need the expertise of professionals trained to design manufacturing systems and processes. 

Manufacturing is changing through increased automation and use of robotics, even in smaller and mid-sized firms. The smaller firms might have the most to gain in a resurgent manufacturing sector, but they face special industrial-engineering challenges, as many of them are contract-job shops that are in the business of small runs and have to be ready to adjust the shop floor quickly to gear up for a new job.

At the recent Wal-Mart U.S. Manufacturing Summit, Mike Duke, president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., pointed to a potential talent gap in the industrial engineering discipline, commenting that U.S. manufacturing needs "those that can design the factories, design the processes, the technology. So as a country, not just Walmart -- we have a shortage in that area, too. We need more science and more engineers to help us ... build the foundation" for a manufacturing resurgence.

At a high level, industrial engineering (IE) is a discipline focused on the design and optimization of complex systems. The job of an industrial engineer is to "figure out ways to do things better," to develop "processes and systems that improve quality and productivity," that save money and eliminate waste, according to the University of Illinois. IE is most often associated with manufacturing, but the university makes the point that industrial engineers are increasingly finding jobs in other workplaces, such as financial services, government, service companies, and healthcare institutions. The school believes that "the need for industrial engineers is growing," as companies "adopt management philosophies of continuous productivity and quality improvement to survive in the increasingly competitive world market."

The Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE) stresses the importance of STEM education in preparing new IEs for the workplace. Math and science, the organization says, helps practitioners to "draw conclusions based on systematically gathered facts," to "think logically and recognize conclusions" and to "develop explanations based on observations."

IIE says industrial engineers typically focus on such areas as project management, production, distribution, supply chain, productivity, process engineering, quality, ergonomics, and human factors, technology development and transfer, strategic planning, change management and financial engineering. In manufacturing, says IIE, the work of industrial engineers more specifically includes:

  • Participating in design reviews "to ensure manufacturability of the product"
  • Determining "methods and procedures for production and distribution activity"
  • Creating documentation and work instructions
  • Managing resources and schedules for production and distribution
  • Using simulation tools for process optimization
  • Facilitating and leading process improvement teams

Douglas Rabeneck, an industrial engineer at consulting firm Accenture, told IMT that IEs have a unique perspective to contribute to manufacturing operations. "I think traditionally industrial engineers have a broader knowledge of organization and engineering" than other disciplines, he said. "As a student, I learned about concepts of mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and other areas. IEs learn a little about how all the other engineering disciplines do things. Also, the classes in industrial economics and business can give you a pretty broad perspective and the understanding to make intelligent decisions about how it all fits together. Using IEs correctly brings a systems approach to problems, looking at things more broadly -- for example, when you're building the business case for introducing automation, or focusing on a particular problem around increasing capacity or reducing costs."

Rabeneck said IEs have a great deal to contribute to a changing U.S. manufacturing sector. "I work with a lot of organizations now that use automation work cells," he said. "They use a variety of tools to improve the quality of the product, reduce the costs, deliver more profits to the organization and the shareholders, and allow the organization to be more competitive. IEs are often involved in those kinds of projects, evaluating the available technologies and robotic systems, making changes and improvements in the capital equipment used to manufacture something."

Khaled Mabrouk, an operational engineer at Sustainable Productivity Solutions who has also taught industrial engineering at San Jose State University, Wayne State University (Detroit), and Eastern Michigan University, thinks that the focus in manufacturing operations on lean management and Six Sigma "at first had a pretty negative effect on industrial engineering -- it turned attention away from the industrial-engineering skills manufacturers need. For awhile there, companies focused more on looking for people with Six Sigma certification than for industrial engineers."

But that is beginning to change, he told IMT. Many engineering schools are actually training industrial engineers in Lean and Six Sigma and are offering certification. Beyond that, though, "Six Sigma has brought a lot of attention to numbers and data," Mabrouk said. This works to the advantage of the IE profession, which is "oriented toward operations research, process flow, simulation, optimization, forecasting. Manufacturers are saying, 'I've got all this data, and I need to extract the maximum value from it.'"