As an industrial engineering major, I can’t tell you the number the times I get asked, “So what do you do?” And every time, I recite the definition of IE: optimizing systems and processes to reduce waste, cost, time and resources. But still, I either receive blank stares or more questions.
To be fair, I don’t blame them. Even after a year or so of being a declared industrial engineering major, I wasn’t sure. Scratch that. I’m still not totally sure. This is because the answer is endless, IE’s can work in hospitals, factories, financial institutions, and pretty much anywhere else because everywhere has processes and everywhere can become more efficient.
To help give a better understanding of some areas industrial engineers work on, I’ll apply it to something everyone can relate to: throwing a party. I know what you’re all thinking…. engineers throw parties?? But let’s just say theoretically, a squad of industrial engineers decide to throw a party. Here’s how they’d probably do it:
Before the party begins, a number of tasks have to be accomplished. Someone has to get the food, someone has to get the drinks, someone has to make a playlist, someone has to clean the house/apartment, someone has to invite everyone. So this leaves a number of jobs that need to be accomplished by a number of people (the hosts).
An industrial engineer would gather information about all of the people’s abilities to perform the jobs, and use a technique like the Hungarian method to give out all of the jobs to the most qualified/quickest person available. For instance if you’re buying alcohol for party attendees who are legal, only the hosts that are over 21 can perform that job. Everyone has the ability to make a music playlist. Say, Jimmy’s taste in music sucks though. An IE would make certain that job was not allocated to Jimmy.
REAL WORLD: A company has twenty different machines and thirty different products. Which machine should process which product to use the least amount of time and money?
Just like the prep work for a party has to be allocated, the hosts also have to decide when to start. This relates to project management. A certain number of tasks have to be accomplished by a certain time (party start), some can happen simultaneously, but others can’t begin until earlier ones are completed. For instance, you can buy food and drinks at the same time, but you can’t start making dip until you have the food.
Each required activity can be modeled as a node. Each activity also has a range of times that it could take to be accomplished. For instance cleaning the kitchen could take 20 minutes or 2 hours depending on how dirty it is and how on task the worker ends up being. These are accounted for through optimistic, average and pessimistic time requirements. The result is a critical path network as shown below:
REAL WORLD: Literally any project in any company.
Even if the hosts don’t plan on changing the entire layout of their place, they still have to consider where to place some things.
For instance, the paper towels should go close to the pong table (because let’s be real, someone will always spill). The pong table also needs to go somewhere with a lot of space. People have to be able to stand behind each end, but people also need to be able to move around without disturbing the game. Right in front of a doorway is not a good spot. These would be input into an activity relationship diagram to create an optimal layout.
REAL WORLD: Due to renovations or new structures being added to a room or building, new facility layouts are constantly required. One case could be how to layout a new floor in a hospital: where do you place the nurse stations, waiting room, patient rooms, supplies, etc based on their relationships to one another.
Optimizing Your Jungle Juice Formula
Jungle juice. In order to create one attendees will actually drink you have to make sure it tastes good and is still alcoholic. But, assuming these engineers are still college students or recent grads, they also want to make it as cheap as possible.
To make sure the industrial engineers are meeting the requirements of a guest satisfying jungle juice without breaking the bank, they’d create a linear programming optimization problem:
Minimize total cost = cost of vodka + cost of mixer
Subject to the following constraints:
- Taste = certain threshold (for example 5 on a scale of 1 to 10)
- Volume of vodka = enough to satisfy average guest * number of guests
- Volume of punch = (1 – volume of vodka per cup as a function of taste) * number of guests
REAL WORLD: A lot of things. Anytime there is a limited number of resources. For example, which warehouses to keep open, and ship from to meet demand in different customer locations while minimizing the overall cost of shipping from warehouse to customer location and operating each warehouse.
The list of IE applications goes on and on…. forecasting demand for potato chips, predicting how many guests will show up using probabilities, determining how many kegs to buy so people won’t be deterred by too long of a line (queuing theory), etc.
Of course now you’re probably thinking industrial engineers are just party planners with a higher pay. And at it’s core, throwing a quality party without wasting a bunch of money is somewhat similar to smoothly operating a company with minimal costs to still turn a profit. But, the difference in planning a party and overseeing operation of a company is that the problems are more complex, more important, and more expensive. Therefore, instead of decisions just being common sense, technical strategies and diagrams are required to determine the best option.
If you’re still confused about what an industrial engineer does, then I give up.