Contrary to popular belief, a degree in industrial engineering does not limit you to employment in the manufacturing industry or hours working behind a computer doing CAD. The industrial engineering profession has risen to unprecedented levels of influence. For example, an impressive number of Fortune 500 CEOs have industrial engineering backgrounds, and an increasing number of industrial engineers are moving into managerial roles at all levels (Olszewski and McHann, 2010).
What is industrial engineering? In this article, we will help you learn more about this field and how to obtain a degree in the discipline so can you decide if this is the right major for you. We will also enumerate some of the core skills you need in order to become a successful industrial engineer (IE).
Perhaps the word “industrial” in industrial engineering leads people to associate it with its traditional roots in manufacturing and the industrial revolution in Europe in the 18th century. However, the discipline has evolved to encompass virtually all sectors and services. Some of the focus areas of IEs include:
To put it simply, industrial engineering focuses on making things better. From business processes to product designs, this branch of engineering aims to achieve efficient systems and produce products that work. Moreover, industrial engineering finds solutions that can help businesses and organizations waste less money and time and use raw materials and manpower wisely while complying with all the regulations and standards imposed by governments.
Industrial engineering combines engineering coursework with business classes. In fact, industrial engineering is closely linked to management and business administration of materials and manpower in a manufacturing environment (Callahan et al., 2008). This means you can learn the core philosophies of how to run an efficient operation, which is needed for a successful business.
As an industrial engineer, you will combine your engineering background with good business sense to serve as the bridge between management goals and operational performance. This is probably the reason why many IEs are moving into managerial roles. It is clear that a transition in skills is occurring: industrial engineers are adding managerial skills to their technical skills (Olszewski et al 2010).
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for industrial engineers will grow to 8% from 2018 to 2028, faster than the average for all occupations (BLS, 2020). This is because the nature of the occupation is versatile. Since IEs are not specialized as other engineers, they can put their expertise into use in a variety of industries. These include manufacturing industries, consulting and engineering services, research and development firms, healthcare, and wholesale trade.
In the U.S., industrial engineers held about 291,710 jobs in 2019. The aerospace and architectural industries were the leading sectors that employed industrial engineers (BLS, 2020).
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019
Math skills. You will need a firm understanding of physics and advanced math subjects, including statistics, calculus, and trigonometry. You can also expect to take on several business classes and research design and data analysis classes, especially if you pursue graduate studies.
Communication skills. Speaking and writing skills are also very important to an industrial engineer. Since part of your work is to explain concepts and produce documentation for employees, other engineers, and scientists, you must be able to explain your findings in a coherent and clear manner.
Creativity. Your creativity and ingenuity will come in handy when designing processes, especially with the goal of reducing costs and labor while achieving the same business goals.
Critical thinking skills. Your logic and reasoning are important when thinking of ways to reduce waste and improve efficiency. You will need to identify problems and come up with logical solutions or alternatives to address them.
Problem-solving skills. As an IE, you might find yourself dealing with several issues at once, from where to best place machines in a factory to worker’s safety, to coming up with a mission management plan for NASA for its payload specialists.
Based on the 2020 subject ranking for engineering and technology from Times Higher Education, the best universities for industrial engineering are mostly in the United States and the United Kingdom. Stanford University and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) are both in the first place, while the University of Cambridge, Harvard University, and the University of Oxford make up the top five list.
Asia is also well represented by universities in China, Singapore, Korea, and Japan. The National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University rank 12th and 15th, respectively. Tsinghua University in China is at number 18, while the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is at number 24 on the list. The University of Tokyo ranks 31st, followed by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in 32nd place.
Outside of the U.K., European universities in Switzerland and Germany also perform well and appear high in the rankings. These include Swiss institutions such as Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich in 8th place and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in 19th place. In Germany, top universities include the Technical University of Munich in 25th place and RWTH Aachen University in 30th place.
It is difficult to provide an exact figure on how much a degree in industrial engineering will cost since rates vary significantly among institutions. Aside from tuition, other factors such as room and board, budget for school supplies and textbooks, and your personal expenses also need to be included in your calculations.
If we take Stanford University from our previous section of the best universities to study industrial engineering, the estimated student budget for undergraduates for the academic year 2020-2021 including room and board and other expenses is $78,218 (Stanford, 2020). Caltech, on the other hand, estimates their cost of attendance at $77,718 (Caltech, n.d.).
Though this published cost of attendance—or “sticker price”—can look intimidating, it can be further reduced through various financial aid and sources of funding made available to students. Caltech, for example, offers grants and scholarships, loans, and work-study programs as financial aid options to their students. If you already have a prospective university or college you want to attend, be sure to ask them about available financial aid for undergraduate students.
According to 2019 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, industrial engineers had a median salary of $88,020 per year. The median hourly wage was $42.32 per year. The top 10% of industrial engineers earned more than $134,070, while the bottom 10% earned less than $57,290.
The median salary of industrial engineers also varies depending on the industries in which they worked. IEs employed in professional, scientific, and technical services had a median annual salary of $96,600. Those who worked in transportation equipment manufacturing had $90,250, while those professionals who worked at fabricated metal product manufacturing had a median annual salary of $76,410 (BLS, 2020).
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Unlike other engineering specialties that focus on one type of technology or the mechanical aspects of products, industrial engineering is the branch of engineering that is most closely related to human resources where you need to apply social skills to work with all types of employees, from engineers to salespeople to top management (Savory, 2005).
As a result, working as an IE provides you with opportunities to interact with people and receive a top-level view of all technologies and processes. This is why industrial engineers can also work as consultants in a variety of work locations or industries, such as hospitals, insurance, banking and finance, travel, transportation, government, ecommerce, pharmaceuticals, etc.
Industrial engineers work on making processes and operations more efficient, which is something every business can benefit from. This why industrial engineers can be employed in virtually any company in any sector that needs to improve their operations. Companies seeking to implement new technologies to automate their production processes, for instance, will need the core skills, higher cognitive skills, and complex information processing abilities of an industrial engineer to help them design new systems, reduce internal costs, or make processes more efficient (BLS, 2020).
Industrial engineers can work in an amusement park like Disney Land and make recommendations on how to speed up lines or shorten the waiting time of customers for a ride. They can also be employed in the healthcare industry, designing schedules for admitting cases to operating rooms or determining the best routing of ambulances through a city.
QA engineers are responsible for tracking the development process of a product, monitoring problems, and solving those problems to make sure that the product meets company standards. Their work mainly involves testing the product or parts of it and overseeing the production process. They make sure that products are not only functional but are also safe. Your smartphone, for instance, does not overheat in spite of having a lot of processing power, thanks to the work of an industrial engineer.
Aside from the manufacturing industry, QA engineers are also often employed in the software industry. As software QA engineers, their roles can involve a wide range of duties. Some of the most common ones are helping meet production deadlines, planning different stages of testing, developing standards and procedures to determine a product’s readiness for release, and helping identify bugs and reporting issues to the development teams.
Process engineers work in continuous manufacturing and are responsible for designing, installing, and monitoring equipment and processes involved in turning raw materials into a specific finished product. For example, they can be employed in agriculture or food manufacturing, turning milk to products like baby formula, butter, or cheese. They can also work in the pharmaceutical industry, petrochemical, mining, nuclear, chemical, or biotechnological industry.
The workplace of a process engineer would typically be surrounded by tanks, temperature gauges, valves and steam pipes, Program Logic Controllers, heat exchangers, and fluidized dryers, among others. As a process engineer, you will work with people from across all departments and stages of the manufacturing process. There are days where you need to meet with R&D, production staff, upper management, and even customers.
In contrast with process engineers, manufacturing engineers work in discrete manufacturing—assembling parts or pieces to produce a distinct item. Manufacturing engineers can oversee the production of smartphones, toys, furniture, medical equipment, computers, etc. They are also needed in automobile production, shipbuilding, and aerospace and commercial jetliner manufacturing.
Manufacturing engineers typically work right at the heart of the production process. This means monitoring assembly areas, conveyor belts, packing machines, CNC lathes, injection molding machines, stamping presses and dies, etc. Their responsibility is to make sure that the production is carried out in the most efficient manner while still maintaining the quality of the product. They keep an eye on equipment and identify areas that can be improved to help the company increase productivity and save on resources/expenses.
Big data analytics helps businesses and organizations harness and understand their data and use it for a wide range of purposes—from reducing costs to making well-informed decisions, creating new products and services, and improving customer experience. Big data is used in businesses across several industries, including banking and finance, manufacturing, retail, media, and oil and gas. In order to gain useful insights from big data, companies must sort through it and use it well (Trstenjan & Cosic, 2019). In other words, every business that wants to grow and improve can turn to their data to do so.
This is where your industrial engineering degree will be an advantage. Most industrial engineering curriculum consists of database management, statistics and probability classes, operations research, modeling with simulation, SQL, and programming classes. As a result, you will gain the foundations needed to work with big data. Data is an asset, and as an IE, you can help manage that asset effectively.
If you are looking for an industrial engineer success story, look no further than your iPhone. Apple CEO, Tim Cook, holds a degree in industrial engineering from Auburn University in Alabama. Joe Forehand, the former CEO of Accenture, also has an IE degree from the same university as Cook.
Industrial engineers have also flourished in the automotive world with Henry Ford being one of the most famous figures in history. Ford was an American industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company. John DeLorean, former General Motors executive and founder of DeLorean Motors, was also an industrial engineer. The same with Taichii Ohno, who is the father of the Toyota Production System (TPS).
More IEs are found in big businesses such as Walmart President and CEO, Mike Duke; former CEO of Northwest Airlines and Burger King, John Dasburg; and Dick Kovacevich, former CEO of Wells Fargo.
Obtaining your degree in industrial engineering gives you more flexibility in choosing which direction you would like to take your career. You can pursue a technical path or drive towards a more management-oriented one.
Working as an industrial engineer can be challenging in the sense that no single workday is the same. Technologies and societies are evolving, affecting how businesses design and produce products and handle their processes. You will have to keep up and bring out innovation. But this also means that your work can have a significant impact on improving people’s lives as you ensure the quality and consistency of products, the security of workplaces, and the efficiency of processes. You will not only need to apply your knowledge about technologies and machines but also use social sciences to understand people and analyze and evaluate problems and design a process, system, or device.
According to a University of Chicago study on job satisfaction in the United States, “overall happiness was enhanced if you had a job that used creativity as well as technical and scientific expertise, and helped others.” (Smith, 2007). These criteria match the typical job description of an industrial engineer. Consequently, in the study, the occupation “Industrial Engineer” ranked number nine in the top 10 occupations with the happiest people.