PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo FEBRUARY 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 6
Special Double Issue: 2005 ASEE Annual Conference - June 12-15 - Portland, Oregon
The Big Squeeze - By Mary Lord

By Mary Lord


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 Service

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 Disney Company.

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 scene."

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 be done."

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, D.C.


Difficult Crossing - By Jeffrey Selingo
Engineering's New Look - By Thomas K. Grose
The Big Squeeze - By Mary Lord
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TECH VIEW: Rebuilding After 9/11 - By Mary Kathleen Flynn
SPECIAL DOUBLE ISSUE: 2005 ASEE Annual Conference - June 12-15 - Portland, Oregon
SPECIAL DOUBLE ISSUE: 2005 ASEE Annual Conference - June 12-15 - Portland, Oregon

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