U industrial and systems engineering seeks to be seen

As of January, the program is separate from the mechanical engineering department.

Though manufacturing was once the main domain of industrial engineers, those days are gone and the province of these big-picture engineers has expanded. Using data to make smart decisions is the business of todayâÄôs industrial and systems engineers, and a gamut of industries, including healthcare, transportation and retail supply chains, are using their skills. This broadening of the field, along with industry demand and increasing student interest in the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Program in Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), prompted program administrators to establish it as a freestanding program, ISyE professor and program director Saif Benjaafar said. However, the financial crisis may delay its growth. The program already offers doctorate and masters ISyE degrees, along with minor degrees to mechanical engineering undergraduates. Benjaafar said the long-term program plan is to add faculty, courses and eventually a full ISyE bachelorâÄôs degree program. But for now, the change âÄî made official in January and announced last week âÄî is mainly an administrative rearrangement that Benjaafar said will make the program more visible to potential students and employers. Formerly part of the mechanical engineering department, it will continue to share infrastructure, staff and other resources with it, Benjaafar said. But as a freestanding program, itâÄôll have its own budget, award its own degrees and report directly to the Institute of TechnologyâÄôs dean rather than the ME department. The focus of the UniversityâÄôs ISyE program is operations research, Benjaafar said, which means applying math models to data sets to make better decisions. For example, an industrial and systems engineer might use a math model to determine just the right amount of radiation to deliver to a patient, based on the number and location of tumors.

More data, more computing

The U.S. Department of Labor projects a 20 percent increase in industrial engineering jobs between 2006 and 2016 , and student ISyE course enrollment is growing too. Over the past six years, the number of students in ISyE courses has nearly doubled, increasing from about 475 in 2002 to 850 in 2008. Benjaafar said he thinks the field is growing in part because some engineering tasks are being outsourced. Also, he said, businesses today simply keep track of more data, and thereâÄôs more computer power available to analyze that data. Career Center for Science and Engineering Associate Director Darren Kaltved said although the economy is uncertain, he expects high demand down the road for âÄúbig pictureâÄù engineers, especially as baby boomer middle managers retire in large numbers.

Economic challenges

Benjaafar said the program had approval before the hiring pause to search for a new faculty position, which would add to the five regular and three associate professors in the program now. But due to the hiring pause, itâÄôs unclear whether theyâÄôll be able to hire someone by fall 2009, the initial goal.

TheyâÄôre requesting an exception, he said, but the offices of the IT dean and University Provost wonâÄôt make that decision until the UniversityâÄôs budget is finalized, University spokesman Dan Wolter said in an e-mail. If they canâÄôt make a new hire by next fall, Benjaafar said new initiatives âÄî like offering more courses and expanding the minor degree program to all IT students âÄî will be delayed. âÄúI think itâÄôs important that we hire quickly,âÄù he said, âÄúthere is that demand, and we hope to capitalize on it.âÄù Bringing in new faculty is key to growing the program, Benjaafar said, partly because their ability to support graduate students depends on the number of faculty with research funding. Right now, he said, theyâÄôre unable to admit all the qualified graduate students who apply. Professor Diwakar Gupta , director of ISyE graduate studies, said he hopes the program will expand, but the financial crisis will make it a challenge. The program needs money to support graduate students, establish seminar programs and invite outside speakers, and hold orientations and information sessions, he said. Though some of that will come from the University, he said, as an independent program, ISyE will also need to generate income to cover some of those expenses. In this tight economic time, eliciting donations to grow their endowment may be slow going. âÄúThe next couple of years,âÄù he said, âÄúwhich is also the time when the program needs to establish itself, are going to be very difficult for us.âÄù Still, Benjaafar said making the program independent wonâÄôt put additional financial stress on it, as it will continue to share the ME departmentâÄôs resources. Moreover, he said he believes IT financial support for the project will be enough to keep the program operating as it is, and help it recruit students, publicize the program and staff courses, even if its endowment grows slowly at first. âÄúWeâÄôre pretty excited about the level of support weâÄôre receiving from the college,âÄù he said.