Industrial engineering is a profession that focuses on improving processes and systems. Industrial engineers observe situations at a site and then return to a desk or computer to analyze and improve what they see. Improvement happens by identifying inefficient or wasteful actions then devising new and improved methods. This guide is about becoming an industrial engineer and includes info on industrial engineering degree programs and potential career paths.
Many professionals find that a career in industrial engineering can be a fulfilling and engaging pursuit. Industrial engineers focus on improving processes in industries like manufacturing and production, and they can take pride in the fact that their solutions provide significant value to a business.
Pursuing a career in industrial engineering is an excellent idea for naturally resourceful individuals who tend to be investigative, thoughtful, or creative. A trained industrial engineer harnesses these characteristics to think in terms of process improvement, waste reduction, and optimization.
How to Become an Industrial Engineer
Industrial engineers possess significant knowledge and expertise in improving the processes and procedures within manufacturing and industrial businesses. The knowledge base that an industrial engineer holds is achieved through formal education.
Industrial engineering requires a bachelor of science degree in industrial engineering from a four-year college or university. Industrial engineering knowledge is similar to other engineering disciplines, so it is also commonly permitted for individuals with degrees in mechanical engineering or civil engineering to serve in industrial engineering roles.
Earning an associate degree in engineering technology is another way to enter the industrial engineering space. People with an associate degree may find entry-level roles that assist industrial engineers. However, performing industrial engineering work will require a four-year degree.
Earning an Industrial Engineering Degree
Most universities and colleges offer an industrial engineering degree path. Before starting a program, it is important to ensure that the school is set up with a quality engineering program. The smartest things to check for in a school before applying are:
- Accreditation. Make sure the program is ABET-accredited (Check for ABET accreditation here).
- Size of the program. Some universities have very large engineering programs with hundreds of students. Decide what is best before applying.
- Advanced degrees. Some universities and colleges offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial engineering.
First and second-year degree curriculum
Industrial engineering requires a broad base of knowledge for solving the many different problems that can arise in a system. The first and second years of studying industrial engineering will focus on general engineering skills, mathematics, and system engineering concepts.
Industrial engineering degrees typically require at least 17 credit hours a semester. In addition to general education courses like math, science, and composition, industrial engineers will typically study the following subjects in their first two years:
- Probability and statistics
- Computer graphic design
- Systems engineering and operations management
- Production analysis
These courses introduce students to industrial engineering concepts like optimization, waste reduction, and process improvement. They are very math and science-focused and will provide the foundation for the more advanced topics in industrial engineering.
Third and fourth-year curriculum: Advanced industrial engineering, lab, and capstone courses
The third and fourth years of studying industrial engineering are typically spent diving deep into the more advanced aspects of the profession. Typically, courses cover advanced industrial engineering topics and are conducted partially in lab settings to give students hands-on instruction.
Industrial engineering degrees typically require a capstone study or thesis completed during the final semester of education. The capstone project is designed to validate all the industrial engineering knowledge that a student has received by requiring a complex project or report to be completed for a real-world problem.
Students spend many hours researching, conducting experiments, and recording results for their capstone. As one of their final requirements, industrial engineering students present the results of their capstone study to their professors for a final grade.
Learn more about getting a master’s degree in industrial engineering with this complete guide.
What does an Industrial Engineer Do?
Industrial engineers study processes and implement methods to improve them. This skillset applies to many different industries and practices and is why industrial engineers can find themselves working in very diverse environments. Every industrial engineering business case is unique, and they take place everywhere. Industrial engineers can work in factories, hospitals, airports, or power plants, to name a few.
Industrial engineers often work in process improvement roles. A process improvement role will typically require an industrial engineer to map out an entire process, from beginning to end, and then make changes to improve the process. To do this, industrial engineers create process maps, which show key nodes, workflows, and decisions throughout a process. Industrial engineers apply statistical analysis to process maps, resulting in quantifiable insights that can be used to drive decisions.
At an Apple iPhone manufacturing facility, numerous iPhone parts, like touch screens, microchips, and antennas, arrive from all around the world to be assembled into complete iPhones. The action of assembling an iPhone can be thought of as one extremely complex super-process that requires the input of thousands of people and machines. At each step along the manufacturing chain, industrial engineers analyze the inputs and outputs of the iPhone manufacturing process and make changes to the processes to improve outputs and quality.
Like process improvement, work optimization is focused on generating the best results from a specific process or activity. Industrial engineers focus heavily on optimization. Rather than changing a process, an industrial engineer will study the process enough to understand and implement the optimal performance conditions for production when optimizing a process. This could result in running machinery at the optimal working rate or scheduling the right number of people working on a production floor.
At Amazon, industrial engineers and system engineers have optimized nearly every aspect of the package delivery process. Amazon employs hundreds of people to fill industrial engineering roles, where they concentrate on every aspect of the business and adjust processes so that they operate as optimally as possible. Industrial engineers at Amazon even study the walking paths of workers inside their fulfillment centers to ensure that they take the quickest route from one location to the next. This allows Amazon to deliver people their goods within days of purchase worldwide.
Industrial engineers enact quality control procedures focused on reducing waste and improving cost efficiencies in some roles. Waste reduction through quality control is an important business function, especially at companies that produce a high volume of products. A one percent deviation in quality performance at a large manufacturing company can result in hundreds of thousands of parts getting scrapped. This could mean significant financial losses for a company.
Quality is vitally important at a car manufacturing plant, for example, where a single lapse can cost millions to fix. In 2014, General Motors had to recall 5.8 million vehicles due to faulty ignition wiring installs, which caused cars to turn off while driving. Industrial engineers work in quality control roles every day at car manufacturing companies to ensure that crises like this do not arise.
Industrial Engineer Career Outlook and Salary
Overall, industrial engineer careers are well regarded and abundant with employment opportunities. Industrial engineers solve vital problems for companies, and they can expect to be fairly compensated for the importance of their work.
There are different tiers to industrial engineering, with careers starting directly after graduating from college. This is the typical career path that an industrial engineer can expect, with responsibilities, compensation, and titles:
- Entry-level industrial engineer. Entry-level industrial engineers fill fundamental roles in quality, process improvement, and optimization. At these positions, engineers gain familiarity with their company’s processes and employ their knowledge base to solve specific problems. Common titles are quality engineer, process engineer, or industrial engineer level I. Compensation for entry-level industrial engineers ranges on average from $63,000 to $85,000, according to PayScale.
- Senior industrial engineer. A senior industrial engineer will work on a vital process within a company or lead a small team of engineers to manage a process. These roles are for people with three to six years of experience and are prerequisites for larger management roles. The median senior industrial engineer salary is $102,890, according to salary.com.
- Engineering team leader. Team leaders may manage all industrial engineers or teams with diverse disciplines. These leaders have worked in the business area for six to ten years and have significant experience across the entire enterprise. The average salary range for an industrial engineer team leader is $117,988, according to Glassdoor. $125,000 to $175,000.
- Executive-level engineers. After the team leader level, career progression begins to move into executive and organizational leadership levels. These leaders are responsible for engineering processes, but they typically do not directly perform engineering functions. Instead, executive-level engineers manage multiple processes and the teams that perform them. The average salary for an executive-level engineer is $150,000 and up.