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The Ins and Outs of Industrial and Systems Engineering

James E. Moore, II, Viterbi Vice-Dean and incoming President of the Institute of Industrial Engineers talks about industrial engineering in today’s context- and of the opportunities it presents for students

March 09, 2015 —
 The USC Viterbi School of Engineering

James E. Moore, professor of industrial and systems engineering and vice dean for academic programs, begins service as president of the Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE) board of trustees on April 1, 2015. IIE is the field of industrial engineering’s lead professional society. Professor Moore served as chair of the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering from 2004 through 2010, and he agreed to answer a few questions about IIE, his role, the field of industrial (and systems) engineering and the opportunities it presents for students at USC and beyond.

What is the field of industrial engineering about? What kinds of problems do industrial engineers solve, and for whom?

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USC Viterbi Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering and Vice Dean for Academic Programs,
and IIE President-Elect James E. Moore, II.

IIE defines the field as “the design, improvement and installation of integrated systems of people, material, information, equipment and energy. It draws upon specialized knowledge and skills in the mathematical, physical and social sciences together with the principles and methods of engineering analysis and design to specify, predict and evaluate the results to be obtained from such systems.” This is the long answer.

The short answer is that industrial and systems engineering is a blend of engineering and management science.

Other engineering disciplines are known for the products they design. Industrial and systems engineers are known for the systems they design and improve. These system improvements tend to increase quality, reduce costs or both.

You refer to “industrial and systems engineering.” Are industrial engineering and systems engineering different, and if so how?

No engineering field can claim an intellectual monopoly on systems or systems thinking, and my consistent usage of the “industrial and systems engineering” label is not meant to imply one. In fact, most engineering activities pertain in some way to the creation, improvement, better understanding of or use of a system — some set of elements that operate collectively to produce specialized outcomes. Systems engineering, in the broadest sense, focuses on enabling the successful functioning of a system, and in this sense any engineering project in any discipline might qualify as an exercise in systems engineering. There is in the Department of Defense arena a fairly tightly defined version of systems engineering that focuses on a development cycle for systems acquisition, including software systems. It is more meaningful to think of systems engineering as an interdisciplinary, integrative activity, most often team-based, that defines the process for bringing a successful system to realization.

Industrial and systems engineers are as interested in the system itself and its functions as in the nature of the process that brings it about. Both rely on a systems point of view that emphasizes understanding and managing trade-offs associated with system design. A purely systems engineering approach is more likely to be driven by functionality requirements, including top-level functions and the resources necessary to realize a validated system capable of executing these functions. Industrial engineering approaches are more likely to treat resources as given, and design the system to maximize performance. Both approaches involve a refined capacity for systems thinking. Industrial and systems engineering is a powerful blend of these complimentary approaches.

Can you provide some examples of the problem domains and the sort of work in which industrial and systems engineering graduates become involved?

The field is versatile with respect to the nature of work done and the industries in which it is done. Industrial and systems engineers are in demand in almost every sector of the economy, but most strongly in sectors involving large-scale integrated systems, including logistics and distribution, hospitals and health care, enterprise resource planning, aviation, aerospace, energy and resource extraction, manufacturing, the military and other systems-oriented activities. There are also excellent opportunities in consulting and engineering services, information technology, research and development and nonprofits. The sort of job activities include risk assessment, process validation, project engineering and execution, systems integration, instrumentation, quality and reliability, facilities layout and design or any aspect of process improvement.

Can you offer some specific examples relevant to students in the USC Epstein Department?

I absolutely can. The Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering is led by the Department Chair, Prof. Julie Higle. She and the rest of the ISE faculty collaborate with several local firms and agencies to ensure that students in the Epstein ISE Department have access to senior capstone design project experiences structured to provide a meaningful cross section of the context in which industrial and systems engineering tools are applied, and the kind of work in which recent graduates might expect to quickly become involved. These capstone experiences are two semesters long, and involve real-world clients who have projects they consider economically important but not urgent. Epstein ISE seniors on these capstone projects typically perform as well as professionals in a consulting firm would.

In the past few years, Epstein ISE student teams have worked closely with firms and agencies as diverse as Aramark on cost model optimization; the layout of a new distribution center in Denver; the L.A. County Department of Health Services to improve accuracy of human resource records; Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the USC Ostrow School of Dentistry to improve patient flow and reduce delay; Gulfstream to increase service bay utilization and increase profitability; the L.A. Department of Transportation to standardize pavement based traffic detectors and improve traffic flow on Wilshire, Pico and Olympic Boulevards; DHL to improve package sortation and throughput and improve labor scheduling; various third party logistics firms to improve receiving operations and evaluate capital investment alternatives related to e-commerce performance; the US Air Force on warehouse layouts and to develop a plan for accommodating a 100 percent electric vehicle fleet on Air Force bases nationwide; Northrup Grumman Corporation to improve labor efficiency in plating operations and trusted platform module design; Disneyland resorts on housekeeping process improvement, laundry operations improvements, store delivery improvements and park traffic simulations; KUSC for expanding listener bases and ancillary business models for Santa Barbara, San Francisco and Los Angeles markets; Sunny D on lean/six sigma analysis of the bottle fill line; Ability First to define new services and markets and redesign warehouse and fulfillment operations; and many others. The list is long!

You said industrial and systems engineering is a blend of engineering and management science. What is the connection with business administration?

Management is an important business function, but management extends beyond business. All scarce resources are subject to management by the decision makers in charge of them: environmental quality, public health, infrastructure, information, intellectual property, capital (financial, human, social), inventories, supply chains, distribution networks, physical plant facilities, productive capacity . . . The list is endless.

Brian Arthur, in his book "The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves," describes technology as a phenomenon or set of phenomena captured and put to use. Implementing these uses inevitably requires decisions about how resources will be managed. Many engineering students are trained to acquire the scientific knowledge to recognize and understand useful phenomena. But if our goal is to make use of phenomena at a scale that is economically relevant, then we need engineering plus management. Indeed, there is no way to separate the depth of our scientific knowledge of phenomena from the quality of our resource management decisions.

An ISE degree is an engineering degree with all of the basic science, math and engineering science content typical of any undergraduate engineering degree. The two years of calculus required are leveraged heavily in the more advanced courses in industrial engineering programs, with strong emphasis on statistical thinking, systems modeling and reliability, simulation and optimization. In fact, there are similarities in the math sequences between industrial and systems engineering and computer science, as they both place greater emphasis on discrete mathematics and both fields include a focus on algorithms.

Industrial and systems engineering programs tend to be broader than most other engineering programs, typically including coursework in applied social science areas such as economics, psychology and organizational behavior.

What you describe seems very consistent with the "Engineering+" philosophy of the USC Viterbi School, in this case an extension of engineering to social phenomena in the form of engineering + management. Please tell us more about this.

ISE is the closest relative to business among the engineering disciplines, but ISE undergraduates are still heavily invested in mathematics and its use for solving problems, including management problems. There are other important differences between ISE and business curricula. ISE students do not take coursework relating to a number of business functions, e.g. marketing. In contrast, applications in human factors engineering, cognitive engineering, human and computer interfaces, ergonomics, product design and manufacturing are all problem domains wholly or partially within industrial and systems engineering that typically would not be represented in business curricula at either the graduate or undergraduate level.

Even though the respective scopes of engineering and business are quite different, these spheres do intersect, and this intersection describes much of the research and graduate teaching occurring in the USC Viterbi School’s Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the USC Marshall School’s Department of Data Science and Operations. There can be fairly substantial convergence with respect to doctoral programs in industrial and systems engineering and areas of business administration focusing on production and operations management. This useful intersection has grown with the emergence of computational analytics and big data.

What is the national picture with respect ISE graduates? How many students typically enter the field?

Nationally, the ISE field produced bachelor’s degree graduates of just under 4,700 in 2013, a total just a little lower than biomedical engineering, and just a little higher than aerospace engineering. The field is less visible among high school students than many others, in part because for many “industrial” is an unappealing or even negative term. Consequently, many of these graduates transferred into the field only after matriculating in college.

This pattern is also evident at USC. The ISE cohort grows as USC Viterbi undergraduates gain academic experience and refine their choice of major. Because industrial and systems engineering is probably the broadest of the school’s undergraduate majors, it attracts students who may favor breadth.

What about graduate degrees? Does the field attract graduate students?

Industrial and systems engineering is particularly attractive at the graduate level. There are two relevant graduate degree categories: industrial and systems engineering, including operations research and manufacturing degrees; and engineering management degrees. Engineering management stands alone as a graduate option at a few institutions, but most often the degree is mounted by an industrial and systems engineering department, typically as a terminal professional degree. If you combine the number of master's degrees awarded nationally in these two areas, the total is close to the total number of master’s degrees awarded in electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, or computer science. Each area accounts for about 6,000 degrees nationally.

Students pursuing graduate degrees in industrial and systems engineering or engineering management very frequently have undergraduate backgrounds in technical areas other than ISE. For instance, typically, only about half the master’s students in the Epstein ISE Department will have undergraduate degrees in industrial and systems engineering. The other half consists of students with educations in any number of technical disciplines. This keeps the Epstein ISE Department’s graduate programs and the discipline as a whole intellectually vibrant and interdisciplinary by infusing industrial and systems engineering methods into new technical problem domains. This situation also persists in part because engineering management degrees are a compelling alternative to the MBA degree for engineers who want to pursue management responsibilities in a technical arena.

Talking about the Epstein ISE Department, when was the department founded? Does USC Viterbi have a long presence in the field?

The Epstein ISE Department is approaching its 75th birthday, and while we are relatively senior in the field, we are by no means the most senior. The first academic department of industrial engineering in the United States is Penn State’s Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, which was established in 1908. This was a pioneering step. The Institute of Industrial Engineers was not established until 1948. There were no doctorates granted in the field until Purdue University granted the first two in 1949, one of which went to a scholar who would eventually join and for a time lead the Epstein ISE Department, Professor Gerald Nadler. A past president of IIE and member of the National Academy of Engineering, Nadler passed away in 2014.

In 1999, Penn State’s Marcus IME Department became the first named department of industrial engineering. In 2001, USC’s Epstein ISE Department became the nation’s second. The Penn State department’s benefactor, Harold Marcus, received his master’s degree from the Epstein ISE Department when Hal and his wife Inge were living in California.

The Epstein ISE Department was, in effect, created in 1942 when courses from the Department of Mechanical Engineering were combined with coursework from what was then the College of Commerce and Business Administration to mount a new Bachelor’s of Science program in Industrial Engineering. The Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering is unique in that, unlike the founding departments in USC Viterbi, the ISE Department does not have a focus that emerges exclusively from the physical sciences. Rather it is of hybrid stock, and enjoys the benefits of a particularly expansive intellectual gene pool.