Strategic Partnerships Counteract an Economy Gone Bad

Author: Kathy Mayer
Purdue experts have fixed assembly line bottlenecks, scheduled surgeons, created an employee skill matrix, made ergonomic improvements, and redesigned workstations, among other projects.

As businesses and industries around the world sharpen their focus on productivity, efficiency, wise use of resources, and human factors, one discipline is delivering practical, comprehensive, integrated results: industrial engineering.

Always valued by manufacturing, industrial engineering is now increasingly being tapped, too, by service, healthcare and other sectors. And Purdue University’s School of Industrial Engineering is at the forefront, with dozens of senior capstone and Technical Assistance Program projects tackled each year, all playing a catalytic role in strengthening the global economy.

“If you look at the general approach industrial engineering takes to analyzing different problems, it’s a natural fit,” Mark Lehto, associate professor of industrial engineering, says of the discipline’s importance worldwide and across all business sectors.

“Industrial engineering is the most human-focused of all engineering branches,” he says. “That’s where the true power of IE really comes from—the focus on humans, on systems and on processes.”

Adel Zakaria (MSIE ’70, PhD ’73), now retired after 32 years at Deere & Company, says the discipline is a critical one. “If you are talking about any activity of a global nature, by nature of the discipline, industrial engineering is involved,” he says. “Any large-scale system has to be modeled, simulated, and tested to be optimally configured, and, of course, these are the industrial engineering tools.”

Lending a talented hand

Among companies recently turning to the Boilermakers for an edge are leading manufacturers, such as Alcoa, Caterpillar, Cummins, and John Deere; diagnostics and pharmaceutical giant Roche Diagnostics; service businesses, such as Kroger and UPS; and healthcare clinics.

Purdue experts have fixed assembly line bottlenecks, scheduled surgeons, created an employee skill matrix, made ergonomic improvements, and redesigned workstations, among other projects.

Students have the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of IE’s tools in a senior design class, required of all IE undergraduates. “Students work on real-world problems,” says Lehto, who teaches the class.

Spring 2009 projects took students to Indianapolis’ Wishard Clinic to evaluate the viability of portable medical interface devices. Another team used analytical modeling, space optimization and applied ergonomics to design a consistent stock layout for field trucks used by United States Infrastructure Corp. of Carmel, Indiana, which marks underground utility lines for construction and landscape projects.

Another team redesigned refrigerated trailer assembly at Wabash National in Lafayette, Indiana, with expected savings of about $1,100 per trailer, Lehto says. And a redesigned facilities layout for West Lafayette’s SSCI/Aptuit maximized time and efficiency for a potential $275,000 annual savings.

Student projects aren’t limited to Indiana or the United States. “With some of the new technologies, we’re actively exploring ways we can expand internationally,” says Lehto.

Impact in Indiana

The School of Industrial Engineering has been involved with Purdue’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP) since its 1986 beginnings. The program, which pairs Purdue expertise with industry need, has tallied some 935 projects over the years. Work frequently focuses on helping companies improve or design new process layouts, better their efficiencies, or troubleshoot manufacturing challenges.

“Industrial Engineering’s participation is essential to the Technical Assistance Program,” says TAP Director David McKinnis (PhD ’99). “Manufacturing and other organizations need process and systems improvements to reduce costs, improve quality, improve response times, lower inventory and for many other factors.”

Most IE/TAP projects run about five days or less, engaging faculty and graduate students.

“We are helping make companies better and more competitive,” McKinnis believes. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we’re saving everybody and there aren’t job decreases. But the impact of industrial engineering on jobs and competitiveness is positive. That’s exactly what IE’s are all about—making things better.”

Recent IE/TAP projects include a plant layout optimization for Leggett & Platt Fixture and Display Group in Middlebury, Indiana, and a warehouse redesign for KTR Corp. in Michigan City, Indiana. Currently, about 90 percent of the IE/TAP projects are in manufacturing. McKinnis expects that to drop to about two-thirds as other sectors take advantage of the program.

Others recognize that industrial engineering’s value is a growing area, Zakaria says. “IE is really one of the broadest engineering disciplines. It deals not only with physical materials, but also processes, products,
people, systems. It’s all about addressing inefficiencies and wasted motion, regardless of the industry.”

Senior design class or TAP project, manufacturing or service, the approach is similar, Lehto says. “We focus on process. It’s not the only thing we look at, but it’s a major part of what we do. We ask what the steps are that people go through to produce whatever is being made—tangible, process or service. Then we analyze the process to come up with the improvements. That really is the root, the reason why we are uniquely positioned.”