The roots of industrial engineering can be traced back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th Century. As traditional manual operations began to be mechanised through inventions such as the spinning jenny, the flying shuttle and the steam engine, so it became possible to manufacture on a larger scale from central locations. As factories and mills began to spring up across Britain, the notion of an industrialised production system began to form.
Adam Smith’s influential ‘The Wealth of Nations’ introduced the concepts of the Division of Labour and the ‘Invisible Hand’ of capitalism, promoting the idea of a factory system before James Watt and Matthew Boulton created the world’s first integrated machine manufacturing facility. This included ideas of waste reduction, cost control and increased productivity as well as skills training for employees.
Charles Babbage’s travels to factories across Britain and the United States in the early part of the 19th Century extended these ideas, leading to the publication of his book, ‘On the Economy of Machinery and Manufacturers.’ The book investigated basic industrial engineering concepts such as how long it takes to a task and whether it can be subdivided into smaller repetitive tasks to create a faster overall process.
Other early innovations included the creation of the idea of interchangeable parts by Eli Whitney and Simeon North, who manufactured firearms for the US Government. They found that, by mass-producing parts that could be used in any finished product, it was possible to save costs by reducing the need for specialised workers.
Despite these early advances, the industrial engineering discipline began with the introduction of scientific management and time-and-motion study by Frederick Taylor (1865-1915). His books, ‘Shop Management’ and ‘The Principles of Scientific Management,’ were published in the early 20th Century. They introduced several methods for improving efficiencies, including the development of working standards and production time reductions based on the scientific method, to allow for high levels of predictability and precision in manual tasks.
Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian pioneered what would later become ergonomics when they categorised human motion into 18 basic elements named ‘therbligs.’ These therbligs broke movements down into units, allowing even the movements of workers to be optimised to save time. They also allowed for jobs to be designed based on movements to ascertain how long it should take to perform.
The first official course in industrial engineering was created by Pennsylvania State University in 1908. In 1927, the Technische Hochschule in Berlin also introduced an industrial engineering degree before the first doctoral degree in industrial engineering was awarded by Cornell University in 1933.
While these academic advances were occurring, Henry Laurence Gantt introduced the Gantt chart in 1912 to outline the actions and relationship within an organisation and Henry Ford managed to cut the production time for a car from 700 hours to just 1.5 hours with the use of assembly lines in 1913. Ford also pioneered ‘capitalist welfare,’ whereby financial incentives were given to employees for increased productivity.
The 1940s saw the development of the concept of Total Quality Management (TQM), which gained momentum following the end of World War II. TQM emphasises the importance of quality in products and processes through every phase of an operation and has become essential to industrial engineering. Six Sigma and the ISO 9000 quality standard have since supplanted the concepts created by TQM.
The next decades saw further advances in industrial engineering methods, including the development of material requirements planning. In Japan, theories such as Kaizen and Kanban emerged, improving quality, delivery schedules, and flexibility in the workplace. These concepts spread to the West through continuous improvement programmes as industry became more globalised.
In 1985, Israeli scientist, Eliyahu M. Goldratt developed his Theory of Constraints, which sought to improve production bottlenecks until they no longer existed. At the same time supply chain management and customer-oriented business process design came to the fore.
Drawing on the physical and social sciences, industrial engineering is important to both producers and end-users of a product. Industrial engineers improve processes and designs to make things more efficient. This is good for business as it saves time and money, raw resources, energy and manpower. However, industrial engineering is not all about profit margins as it also ensures the safety and quality of a product or process, which is good for both employees and end users.
Analysing, designing, predicting and evaluating processes helps remove roadblocks and creates higher quality and more efficient processes and devices. An industrial engineer will not only have made sure the device you are reading this on was made in the most cost-effective manner (making it cheaper for you to buy), but also makes sure that it is safe and won’t just burst into flames while you are using it!
Industrial engineers work across all stages of production and processing. This may involve designing a product or process from the beginning or adapting and upgrading, expanding or reconfiguring an existing process or procedure. They use a variety of problem-solving techniques to develop effective solutions and ensure optimal performance.
This may involve designing new equipment and writing specifications for equipment bought from an outside vendor to ensure it meets those requirements. An industrial engineer may be required to repurpose existing equipment or facilities, design new processes or tools and procedures.
To achieve these tasks, industrial engineers need a basic working knowledge of various areas of engineering, work processes, tools, equipment and materials in order to design systems and processes that meet cost, quality, safety and environmental requirements.
Industrial engineers may use computer aided design (CAD) systems to help design equipment or facilities and computer modelling to simulate processes and supply chains to improve efficiencies and reduce costs.
Industrial engineers are involved in activities including production and operations planning, production and operations management, materials handling, and logistics and operations.
Industrial engineers work in a range of different environments, from offices to the settings they are tasked with improving. This could include watching how a process works in a factory or examining workflows in a hospital. This data can then be taken and examined using a computer for solving problems.
The wide range of skills used by industrial engineers means they can work in both managerial and technical positions. They can be found in a variety of employment settings, including consulting and engineering, research and development, service industries, logistics, manufacturing and trade.
Industrial engineering is very unlikely to be automated. Analysis from a series of employment websites has determined that there is just a 3% chance of industrial engineering being automated in the future. This is due to the range and type of activities undertaken by industrial engineers.
Industrial engineering is still in demand and studying industrial engineering is still popular with students. There are a wide range of opportunities in industrial engineering and it was projected to grow by 10% between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than many other occupations.
Improving efficiencies and reducing costs continues to be an important focus for many industries, meaning that industrial engineers will continue to be in demand.
The variety of roles undertaken by industrial engineers, below, provides an indication as to how in demand industrial engineering is today:
- Behavioural economics
- Energy engineering and management
- Facilities engineering
- Financial engineering
- Human factors and safety engineering
- Information systems engineering and management
- Manufacturing engineering
- Methods engineering
- Operations engineering, management and optimisation
- Organisation development and change management
- Policy planning
- Production engineering
- Quality and reliability engineering
- Supply chain management and logistics
- Systems engineering, simulation and analysis
Industrial engineering was traditionally focused on planning the layouts of assembly lines and improving worker productivity. However, this has expanded with lean manufacturing systems so that industrial engineers now work to eliminate wastes of time, money, materials, energy, and other resources.
Today’s industrial engineers use computer simulations and design to map and analyse systems and processes ready for optimisation. The future looks set to see the continued use of such tools alongside data science and machine learning in order to further improve processes and procedures. As the Internet of Things becomes more prevalent, so this is now becoming an important part of industrial engineering and it seems that this trend will continue and expand in the future to unite employees, machines, materials, information and more to create better practices.
Industrial engineering can be found in a wide range of industries, where it is used to improve processes and procedures to save time and money while also ensuring safety and quality.
Bringing together specialist knowledge and skills to analyse and evaluate processes and systems, industrial engineering crosses into areas including business administration, production and manufacture, operations, systems and supply chains, ergonomics, logistics and more.
As industrial engineering continues to develop with factors such as machine learning becoming important new facets of the process, industrial engineers will continue to be in demand for a range of different industries.
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