NC State's Paul Cohen: Both shop floor employees and industrial engineers will need new skills as they deal with advanced manufacturing technologies and supply chains.

Industrial Engineers and the Manufacturing Renaissance

Sept. 3, 2014
A manufacturing renaissance is drawing young people to industrial engineering, but along with plentiful jobs, they will find technology and workplace challenges.

How would you like to leave college with eight or nine job offers?

That is a far-fetched dream for many young people looking to enter the workforce but for the best industrial engineering students at North Carolina State University, that has been the reality for the past few years, says Dr. Paul Cohen, who heads NC State’s Industrial and Systems Engineering department.

As talk of manufacturing being dead has been replaced by that of a U.S. manufacturing renaissance, students are flocking in increasing numbers to the engineering discipline. Median pay for industrial engineers in 2012 was $78,860, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Enrollment in the NC State’s industrial engineering program has more than doubled, says Cohen, and he reports programs at other schools are seeing similar growth. Still, the U.S. does not have enough industrial engineers moving through the educational pipeline. Cohen cites a 2012 article in The New York Times that examined the production ramp-up for Apple’s iPhone. The article noted that 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee the 200,000 employees of Foxconn who would manufacture the phones. Apple estimated that it would take nine months to find that number of engineers in the U.S. But as the article stated, “In China, it took 15 days.”

Moreover, says Cohen, “In the U.S., we produce about 3,300 industrial engineers a year.”

Those students are moving into an era of a manufacturing renaissance, Cohen firmly believes. He said some parts of U.S. manufacturing are gone, but other segments will grow and some jobs will be reshored to the U.S. He cites as an example Caterpillar bringing welding lines back to its factories in North Carolina.

“They like the quality they get,” he said. “They like the fact they can control things much more easily.”

Cohen thinks the need to invest in manufacturing is one issue enjoying bipartisan agreement. He points to the growing network of manufacturing innovation institutes, such as the Next Generation Power Electronics National Manufacturing Innovation Institute that NC State leads. The $140 million public-private institute, announced by President Obama on January 15, will work on production processes for wide bandgap semiconductors, a new generation of smaller, faster and more efficient semiconductors.

There is good economic reason for investing in manufacturing, he points out.

“About 70% of our exports are manufactured goods,” he says. “If you look at how we gain wealth, that becomes a critical piece of the puzzle.” Moreover, he cites the high multiplier effect that manufacturing has on economic activity.

Cohen also points to the innovation that manufacturing drives. “If you look at U.S. patents, 90% are from the manufacturing industry,” he says.

Communication Vital to Advanced Manufacturing

While the general population is “stuck thinking about the old style of manufacturing, smokestack industry,” Cohen says we have entered the era of Manufacturing 2.0, where both shop floor employees and engineers will need new skills for more advanced manufacturing.

One of the primary skills they will need, he believes, is the ability to use information technology to connect all the pieces of a more complex, interdependent manufacturing environment. He says additive manufacturing will contribute to a very distributed supply chain.

“The ability to share information is going to change everything that we do,” Cohen says. “Companies can’t have people doing different things and not be connected in some way.”

With that, says Cohen, engineers will need to have a broad set of skills so they can contribute to the full range of manufacturing activities.

“It is not just what is the process that makes something,” he says. “It is how do we develop the manufacturing process. How do we develop the automation? How do we look at the supply chain and control the quality of what goes in? How do we lay out the factory to take advantage of this?”

There are also a variety of issues regarding the people that will work in the factory, he says. “How do people fit into that workplace, whether it is designing jobs for them or looking at computer-human interfaces so they can control equipment better.”

NC State has a Center for Additive Manufacturing and Logistics. One of the most advanced facilities of its kind, it houses more than 20 3D printing machine that include capabilities for working with plastics, metals and ceramics. It also includes advanced CNC equipment.

Cohen said we have only “barely scratched the surface” of what 3D printing can do. He said there is more work needed on the technology itself, but there is also a major challenge in teaching engineers how to design products to take advantage of 3D printing.

“They can produce certain geometries that you can’t do with other processes,” he noted. “It takes a whole new way of thinking to take advantage of these 3D processes.”

As an example of how 3D printing is opening new opportunities, he points to the work that his department has done with NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine. They have used additive manufacturing to produce personalized implants for cats and dogs that, for example, have lost a limb due to disease, an accident or a birth defect. The procedures use osseointegrated prosthetics in which the implant is attached directly to the animal’s bone. For animals and eventually humans, this technology promises implants that are not approximate to the original limb but rather fit its dimensions exactly and provide increased functionality.

New technologies such as additive manufacturing are just one reason why Cohen said NC State stresses the value of hands-on experience in its engineering programs.

“It’s one thing to read about a 3D process in a book or hear about it in a lecture,” he says. “It’s another thing to go into the lab and do it yourself. Sometimes you make mistakes and have to figure out what you did wrong, but it brings all those concepts to life.”

Companies want engineers with a solid technical education but they also want them to be able to function well in a corporate environment where the need for communication and teamwork is essential. One way NCSU addresses this is through a senior project in which students work on problem given them by a company.

“We don’t teach them any new technical material but we supplement it with a lot of the soft skills,” said Cohen, who said the department even hired a member of the English department to help with their writing skills and presentations. He said they also work with students on project management skills, globalization and other issues.

“I always tell students that as an engineer, there should be nothing more frustrating to you than to work on a project and have it languish and not get implemented because you didn’t know how to communicate it,” Cohen says, adding, “Industrial engineers in particular deal with people from the shop floor to the boardroom. You have to be able to communicate with everybody.”

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