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Industrial engineering (IE) is about choices. Other engineering disciplines apply skills to very specific areas. IE gives you the opportunity to work in a variety of businesses. The most distinctive aspect of industrial engineering is the flexibility that it offers. Whether it’s shortening a rollercoaster line, streamlining an operating room, distributing products worldwide, or manufacturing superior automobiles, all share the common goal of saving companies money and increasing efficiencies.
As companies adopt management philosophies of continuous productivity and quality improvement to survive in the increasingly competitive world market, the need for industrial engineers is growing. Why? Industrial engineers are the only engineering professionals trained as productivity and quality improvement specialists.
Industrial engineers figure out how to do things better. They engineer processes and systems that improve quality and productivity. They work to eliminate waste of time, money, materials, energy, and other commodities. Most important of all, IEs save companies money. This is why more and more companies are hiring industrial engineers and then promoting them into management positions.
"'Industrial engineer' is synonymous with systems integrator - a big-picture thinker, in other words. It's an employee who takes what exists today and conceptualizes what should exist in the future. A lot of engineers become disillusioned with the engineering profession because they get involved in minutiae or they end up on a CAD machine all the time, and they never get out in the factory environment or the operating environment. That's not what happens to an industrial engineer. IEs spend most of their time out in the real operating environment, coming up with scientific approaches to problems rather than seat-of-the-pants, temporary solutions,” says John Samuels, vice president of Norfolk Southern.
Many people are misled by the term "industrial engineer." The "industrial" does not mean just manufacturing. It encompasses service industries as well. It has long been known that industrial engineers have the technical training to make improvements in a manufacturing setting. Now it is becoming increasingly recognized that these same techniques can be used to evaluate and improve productivity and quality in service industries.
"Anybody who needs surgery studies, assessments, redesign in the surgery department … we do it," explains Tryna Knox, director of surgery performance for VHA. "Onsite hospital visits, which include observations and interviews to understand the flow of patients through operating rooms are conducted to help surgeons and anesthetists understand their own efficiency levels." Knox credits her industrial engineering education for much of her current success. "I think the whole systems focus in IE is very important," she says.