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The ins and outs of industrial and systems engineering

USC Viterbi Vice Dean James E. Moore II examines industrial engineering and the opportunities it presents

James E. Moore II, professor of industrial and systems engineering and vice dean for academic programs at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, begins service as president of the Institute of Industrial Engineers’ board of trustees on April 1.

Moore, who served as chair of the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering from 2004-10, discusses IIE, the field of industrial and systems engineering and the opportunities it presents for students at USC and beyond.

What is the field of industrial engineering? What kinds of problems do industrial engineers solve and for whom?

IIE defines the field as “the design, improvement and installation of integrated systems of people, material, information, equipment and energy. It draws upon specialized knowledge and skills in the mathematical, physical and social sciences together with the principles and methods of engineering analysis and design to specify, predict and evaluate the results to be obtained from such systems.” This is the long answer.

The short answer is that industrial and systems engineering is a blend of engineering and management science.

Other engineering disciplines are known for the products they design. Industrial and systems engineers are known for the systems they design and improve. These system improvements tend to increase quality, reduce costs or both.

You refer to “industrial and systems engineering.” Are industrial engineering and systems engineering different, and if so how? 

No engineering field can claim an intellectual monopoly on systems or systems thinking, and my consistent usage of the “industrial and systems engineering” label is not meant to imply one. In fact, most engineering activities pertain in some way to the creation, improvement, better understanding of or use of a system — some set of elements that operate collectively to produce specialized outcomes. Systems engineering, in the broadest sense, focuses on enabling the successful functioning of a system, and in this sense any engineering project in any discipline might qualify as an exercise in systems engineering.

Industrial and systems engineers are as interested in the system itself and its functions as in the nature of the process that brings it about. Both rely on a systems point of view that emphasizes understanding and managing trade-offs associated with system design.

You said industrial and systems engineering is a blend of engineering and management science. What is the connection with business administration?

Management is an important business function, but management extends beyond business. All scarce resources are subject to management by the decision makers in charge of them: environmental quality, public health, infrastructure, information, intellectual property, capital (financial, human, social), inventories, supply chains, distribution networks, physical plant facilities, productive capacity. . . . The list is endless.

An ISE degree is an engineering degree with all of the basic science, math and engineering science content typical of any undergraduate engineering degree. The two years of calculus required are leveraged heavily in the more advanced courses in industrial engineering programs, with strong emphasis on statistical thinking, systems modeling and reliability, simulation and optimization.

Industrial and systems engineering programs tend to be broader than most other engineering programs, typically including coursework in applied social science areas such as economics, psychology and organizational behavior.

What is the national picture with respect to ISE graduates? How many students typically enter the field?

Nationally, the ISE field produced bachelor’s degree graduates of just under 4,700 in 2013, a total just a little lower than biomedical engineering, and just a little higher than aerospace engineering. The field is less visible among high school students than many others, in part because for many, “industrial” is an unappealing or even negative term. Consequently, many of these graduates transferred into the field only after matriculating in college.

This pattern is also evident at USC. The ISE cohort grows as USC Viterbi undergraduates gain academic experience and refine their choice of major. Because industrial and systems engineering is probably the broadest of the school’s undergraduate majors, it attracts students who may favor breadth

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The ins and outs of industrial and systems engineering

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