By Mary Lord
STATE'S NEW ENGINEERING PROGRAM TEACHES STUDENTS
HOW TO HELP THE SERVICE INDUSTRY STREAMLINE OPERATIONS.
The last time Jeff Schatz hit the emergency room,
he waited six hours just to get a tetanus shot. "You
began to wonder what all these people are doing,"
the Pennsylvania State University engineering major
recalls with a grimace. But times have changed, at least
at the local hospital. There, Schatz and his design-project
teammates recently were "blown away" by
the near-empty waiting room and revamped triage system
that got people to beds or X-ray in 10 minutes or less.
Mount Nittany Medical Center's miracle cure? Not
some expensive device but schedule-tracking software
that allows nurses to assign patients numbers, pinpoint
unoccupied berths, and spotlight anyone still there
after two hours. The lesson for Schatz and his fellow
industrial engineering seniors: "You can fix the
bumps in the road without remaking it," even in
a system as sprawling as healthcare.
That is precisely the kind of imaginative spark Penn
State's College of Engineering hoped to ignite
with its new service-process engineering track. Rolled
out this fall, the radically restructured curriculum—the
first overhaul in 21 years—includes new introductory
courses on information technology, global manufacturing,
and other seismic forces rattling the U.S. economy.
It also thrusts the nation's oldest industrial
engineering department into the academic vanguard. While
a handful of engineering programs have carved out service-industry
niches in healthcare or transportation, Penn State is
unique in exposing undergraduates to the panoply of
what Richard Koubek, head of the Harold and Inge Marcus
Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering,
dubs "the new industrial base of America"—the
call centers, financial institutions, E-commerce concerns,
health providers, supply chains, and other nonmanufacturing
"assembly lines" that employ 4 in 5 Americans.
"It's turned our traditional industrial
engineering curriculum upside down," explains
Koubek, who believes engineering's powerful approach
to problem solving "shouldn't be limited
to the shop floor." Undergraduates still must
master such manufacturing mainstays as statistical analysis
and quality control. Now, however, they learn to apply
those basics to a broader plant—applying ideas
for squeezing waste and inefficiency from an auto factory
to, say, a hospital.
Engineering at Your
Engineering can do a lot for the service industry,
says Penn State engineering alumnus and Advisory Board
Chair Chuck Schneider, president and CEO of Georgia-based
U.S. Security Associates. A main spur for reform—"our
external champion," Koubek calls him—the
security industry executive has been pushing for greater
focus on the "under-engineered" service
sector since 1983. "If I have to fill out one
more healthcare form listing all my relatives and why
they died and what illnesses I have had—I mean,
how absurd!" Schneider grouses, pointing to the
"obvious" need for a template. "If
we'd had Toyota [quality] methods in healthcare
we wouldn't be talking about the Medicare problems."
It may have seemed like a natural medicine to professionals
like Schneider—who notes the "interesting
metric" of how easily he was able to recruit other
executives for the service-enterprises advisory board—but
it remained a tough sell for many faculty members. "Not
without challenge, pain, and suffering," is how
Bob Voigt, a professor of industrial and manufacturing
engineering, described the process. Never mind that
students repeatedly told Koubek and other professors
that they couldn't see spending the rest of their
lives in manufacturing and wanted more courses relevant
to the service arena.
"We are all a bit parochial," says Jeya
Chandra, professor-in-charge of academic programs for
industrial engineering, who has seen turf wars quash
several attempts at curriculum reform during 25 years
at Penn State. Everyone recognized the need to add courses
on computer-aided design, economics, and other knowledge
critical for operating in today's global, 24/7
workplace. But whose specialty then got cut? "You
can't throw the baby out with the bathwater,"
Voigt insists. He notes that 60 percent of industrial
engineers get jobs in manufacturing and another 10 percent
work for consulting companies with manufacturing ties.
"You can't destroy that."
True, but you can reduce the overlap between courses,
reorganize topics to improve flow and sequence, and
introduce case studies, internships and capstone design
projects that stress such service-sector processes as
eliminating hospital drug errors or redirecting customers
online. That helped create space in the 129-credit undergraduate
program for a new required course in information technology.
The resulting Curriculum 2020, which debuts in full
next fall, shrinks the core competencies—the basics
of applied statistics, manufacturing operations, ergonomic
and human factors, and information technology—and
expands electives. This gives students the flexibility
to delve deeper into minors that interest them. By shaving
the number of required courses in statistical analysis
from three to two, for example, the program allows passionate
number-crunchers to pursue a third, high-end course
while others can burrow into occupational health. As
metallurgist Voigt puts it, "Everyone who comes
out is not going to be one flavor, vanilla. They are
going to be lots of flavors."
Terry Friesz, professor of industrial engineering
and department chair, considers service-process engineering
as "an umbrella" under which research and
classes in topics like financial engineering and auctions,
entertainment, insurance, and supply chains will happily
fit. "Many of these topics are covered in business
schools," he notes, adding that several of the
college's engineering alumni work for the Walt
At the Front
Already, hands-on projects with real companies have
helped students like Brian Piccolo make the leap from
classroom to service-industry application. Piccolo and
his Penn State teammates are investigating work-at-home
solutions, studying how Victoria's Secret handles
catalog sales, and devising ways to drive callers toward
the Internet. "All the material we learn in our
classes is transferable," says Piccolo, who envisions
a career in supply-chain management. "It's
the same as in any manufacturing plant. If you're
putting in a new piece of equipment, you have to prove
it's cost effective. It's just a different
Some critics argue that service industries are too
different for engineering's template to work.
"I don't believe it for a second,"
CEO Schneider scoffs. "When Henry Ford started,
there was no way to define if something was a good fender
or a bad one." Automakers soon figured out how
to measure quality. Now, Ford is saving millions by
applying the same principles to the accounting department.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh-area hospitals like Allegheny
General have adopted Toyota Production System improvement
principles, paring the rate of blood infections in its
two intensive-care units from 49 to 6 in a year. "Is
it difficult? Yes," Schneider concedes. "Is
it messy? Yes. But that doesn't mean it can't
The trick may lie in redefining the discipline. "It's
experimenting with processes—that's really
what engineering is about," Schneider says. "It's
not all mathematics. It's not reading a stopwatch.
It could be vouchers and charter schools."
Or healthcare. No emergency propelled Jeff Schatz
and his design-project teammates to Mount Nittany Medical
Center recently. Rather their quest was to see if the
system, with some tweaks, could help boost efficiency
at a sclerotic Pittsburgh hospital, where waiting time
could top eight hours. "We're not experts
on how to treat patients," acknowledged senior
Matt Stirling, noting how much more efficient a computer-based
triage system with flat-panel display is compared with
the old white board that remains in the corner in case
the system crashes. "But the core of industrial
engineering is to reduce inefficiencies, maximize quality
control, find the problem, and solve it—and make
the system better. Those points apply to any business
or sector—in this case, the service sector."
The experience "kind of opened up my concept
of industrial engineering, and how it can be applied,"
agrees Stirling's teammate, Andre Jackson. "I
worked in a manufacturing plant for a couple of summers.
I couldn't see the impact of my work. With service
industries, I know it's helping people. I know
it's helping save lives. It gives you a good feeling."
The payoff is indeed immediate. Matt Stirling's
work on department metrics at Johnson & Johnson
Health Care Systems in Piscataway, N.J., slashed a 10-
to 20-hour-per-month process to a 30-minute one.
Despite such potential benefits, it will take time
for the service sector to become a big employer of industrial
engineers. "But if the industry is inviting the
engineers in, it will happen," says Proctor Reid
of the National Academy of Engineering, which has studied
re-engineering in healthcare, transportation, and other
nonmanufacturing enterprises. Research could help secure
service sector buy-in, he observes, but "frankly,
industry is not going to step in and become an overall
driver of research."
Ironically, Penn State, itself a service industry,
may be among the new curriculum's first beneficiaries.
Industrial engineering seniors Dominic Francioni and
Nicole Tilley have been scouring the university since
last spring for ways to save money and improve student
services despite ever tighter budgets. After benchmarking
with other universities, the pair identified 120 best
practices. The university is reviewing their findings.
Mary Lord is a freelance writer based in Washington,