What Is Industrial Engineering?

Time management
Industrial engineers figure out to make or do things better, safer and more efficiently. (Image credit: Mikko Lemola | Shutterstock )

Industrial engineering is the branch of engineering that involves figuring out how to make or do things better. Industrial engineers are concerned with reducing production costs, increasing efficiency, improving the quality of products and services, ensuring worker health and safety, protecting the environment and complying with government regulations. 

They "work to eliminate waste of time, money, materials, energy and other commodities," according to the Institute of Industrial Engineers. For example, industrial engineers may work to streamline an operating room, shorten a roller-coaster line, make assembly lines safer and more efficient, and speed up the delivery of goods.

History of industrial engineering

Industrial engineering can be traced back to the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. 

Some of the early practitioners of industrial engineering include:

  • Samuel Colt, who pioneered the assembly line;
  • Frederick Taylor, who introduced scientific management, and time-and-motion study;
  • Harrington Emerson, who described process improvement methods in his book, "Twelve Principles of Efficiency";
  • Henry Laurence Gantt, who developed the Gantt Chart for organizational management;
  • Henry Ford, who implemented the assembly line for automobile manufacturing; and
  • Eliyahu M. Goldratt, who developed the Theory of Constraints (TOC), which identified the most significant limiting factor in a process — the "bottleneck" — and ways to improve it until it is no longer the constraint. 

In its early days, industrial engineering was driven almost entirely by the motive to increase the efficiency and profitability of manufacturing operations. Since then, the continuous invention and development of new machinery and power sources have provided new challenges for industrial engineers to find new applications for these technologies and optimize their use to increase productivity. 

Starting in the 1940s, the concept of Total Quality Management (TQM) became an essential part of industrial engineering. TQM places emphasis on ensuring and improving the quality of products and processes in every phase of an operation. This has since been supplanted by Six Sigma and the International Organization for Standardization's ISO 9000 quality standards. 

What does an industrial engineer do?

Industrial engineers are involved in all stages of production and processing. They may design new facilities from the ground up, or they may be responsible for upgrading, expanding or reconfiguring existing facilities. They may be required to design new equipment or write specifications for equipment purchased from outside vendors and ensure that it meets those requirements. They may also need to repurpose existing facilities and equipment, design new processes, and design new tools and fixtures. 

In order to maintain these standards, industrial engineers must have a basic working knowledge of many areas of engineering and also be familiar with work processes, equipment, tools and materials in order to design facilities, systems and equipment that meet requirements for cost, quality, safety and environmental protection. 

More and more, industrial engineers rely on computer-aided design (CAD) systems to design facilities and equipment. They also use computer modeling to simulate process flows and supply chains in order to maximize efficiency and minimize costs. A comprehensive list of necessary skills and abilities for industrial engineers can be found at MyMajors.com

Where do industrial engineers work?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), "Depending on their tasks, industrial engineers work both in offices and in the settings they are trying to improve. For example, when observing problems, they may watch workers assembling parts in a factory or staff carrying out their tasks in a hospital. When solving problems, they may be in an office at a computer looking at data that they or others have collected." 

How much do industrial engineers make?

Most industrial engineer jobs require at least a bachelor's degree in engineering. Many employers, particularly those that offer engineering consulting services, also require certification as a professional engineer (PE). A master's degree is often required for promotion to management, and ongoing education and training are needed to keep up with advances in technology, materials, computer hardware and software, and government regulations. Additionally, many industrial engineers belong to the Institute of Industrial Engineers (IIE). 

According to Salary.com, as of October 2014, the salary range for a newly graduated industrial engineer with a bachelor's degree is $49,636 to $70,852. The range for a midlevel engineer with a master's degree and five to 10 years of experience is $69,849  to $106,304, and the range for a senior engineer with a master's or doctorate and more than 15 years of experience is $89,587 to $131,045. Many experienced engineers with advanced degrees are promoted to management positions or start their own businesses, where they can earn even more.

What is the future of industrial engineering?

The BLS projects that the employment of industrial engineers will grow by 5 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. "This occupation is versatile both in the kind of work it does and in the industries in which its expertise can be put to use," the BLS said. Having good grades from a highly rated institution should give a job seeker an advantage over the competition. 

Additional resources

Look for top-rated university programs in industrial engineering at FindTheBest.com.

Take a look at the winning videos about industrial engineering from the 2013 Industry Advisory Board's YouTube student video contest: 

Correction: This article was updated on Oct. 13, 2014, to include the correct upper range for a senior engineer's salary.

Jim Lucas
Live Science Contributor
Jim Lucas is a contributing writer for Live Science. He covers physics, astronomy and engineering. Jim graduated from Missouri State University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in physics with minors in astronomy and technical writing. After graduation he worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a network systems administrator, a technical writer-editor and a nuclear security specialist. In addition to writing, he edits scientific journal articles in a variety of topical areas.