The Future of Industrial Engineering

A December, 2015 XKCD comic poked fun at our future not looking like that promised in comics, movies and books over the past few decades. Where’s my flying car? Where’s my hover board? Then there’s the irony that we have an internet with computers connecting everyone to masses of information but not a central computer running everything, though “the cloud” is evolving to shift us back toward that paradigm.

One facet of the sci-fi world of tomorrow that is arriving today is the use of drones as on demand robotic delivery. I was in an IIE holiday party when the topic came up. Someone wondered if this would make many engineers obsolete.

Actually, it won’t. A fair number of industrial engineers work for firms like UPS, Fedex and trucking companies scheduling logistics and planning routes. Drones simply add a third dimensions to the logistical challenge. Adding on demand delivery using drones, as Amazon has proposed, creates a brand new opportunity for industrial engineers already working on operations research, scheduling and optimization.

Will drones replace traditional delivery methods? In a word, no. Drones don’t replace trucks for delivering your new dishwasher, carrying cars to the dealership to be sold, carry oil by the barrel to refineries and power plans. Drones may allow for the rapid delivery of items already manufactured to the destination, but it doesn’t replace in the in place infrastructure for delivering raw materials en masse.

The same is true for 3D printing. While 3D printing lets you make things out of mostly plastic feedstock, 3D printing doesn’t eliminate the infrastructure required for delivering fuel to power plants, carrying people to their destinations, transporting materials to factories that make the plastic feedstock that gets used in 3D printing. 3D printing’s greatest immediate impact on industrial engineering is the growth in traditional job-shop type planning and management, as well as demand for producibility and ergonomic design, for any printing shop more than one person in a basement making one-off items.

What do I see in the future, beginning with 2016, as new technologies continue to evolve? New demand for old skill sets, without making the still common industrial engineering jobs obsolete. These new technologies actually increase the demand for the expertise of industrial engineers.