[B-SIDE Podcast] Exploring the nation-building role of industrial engineers

Industrial engineering, or IE, is an often-overlooked field of engineering that deals with cutting costs, increasing savings, and making improvements to systems. In the Philippines, industrial engineers have been responsible for many such improvements, like streamlining product lines to make them more efficient and adjusting vaccination queues to accommodate more people.

In this B-Side episode, Philippine Institute of Industrial Engineers (PIIE) Founder Rodel “Audi” E.C. Adiviso and current president Jerry A. Lim talk to BusinessWorld reporter Bronte H. Lacsamana about how IE can fix modern-day systems and develop in the age of digital transformation.

IE goes hand in hand with technological advancement because it blends management expertise with engineering principles, said Mr. Adiviso.

“If you magnify it and apply it to factories, to companies, then you see the relevance of getting products on a timely manner, getting services in a more efficient way, and with a lot of savings in terms of cost implications,” he said.

For Mr. Lim, the crux of the IE principle is simple — it’s a “study of systems, where you just keep on trying to improve something” — and that includes making do with the technology we have today.

The IE mindset has already been applied to local systems.

The coronavirus pandemic actually illustrated the brilliance and importance of IE in emergency or safety situations that require putting things in order, according to Mr. Adiviso.

He said that clients like Unilab reached out to ask how to solve overcrowding in vaccination centers, which they began looking into by going to one such center in Quezon City.

“There, we noticed that a lot of people can get their injection in 12 seconds, but the bottleneck was actually in filling up forms, in queuing upfront,” he said. “If you balance the line, it should happen, that smoother flow.”

The person who thought of the rapid pass used to enter malls and establishments was also an IE. “They did spot checks at first, which caused long lines. It took an IE to come up with a rapid pass using a QR code,” Mr. Lim said.

The term they use for that thinking is “kaizen,” a Japanese word which means “continuous improvement.” That is how IEs develop a better way of doing things, he added.

IE professionals can be certified.

Mr. Adiviso pointed out that, though it is an underrated field in engineering that does not have a government-mandated board exam, IE has had a certification exam in the Philippines since 2010, established by PIIE.

It started off with only 60 takers and gradually reached 1,000 every year, right before the pandemic hit. Since then, it is inching up from a hundred in 2020 to around 300 exam takers this year.

“IEs are now valued here, and big companies are stipulating that they wish to hire certified industrial engineers or professional industrial engineers,” he said.

PIIE itself, which he started in 1998, aims to further the relevance of the IE mindset. Though the certification program has helped with this goal, emerging technologies are rapidly shifting the skillset that an IE needs.

People who are trained to analyze data and to find solutions with the data given to them are becoming very, very relevant, and IE is the field of engineering that trains the most in that skillset, said Mr. Lim.

“The bottom line is that the IEs come up with the system, the flow of information, and then the computer science people are the ones who will translate it into formulas or numbers for people to use,” he explained.

AI, machine learning will be integrated into many systems.

Traffic is an example of a bottleneck situation that can utilize operations research to build an algorithm that solves the problem, Mr. Adiviso said.

“You can find the right combination of what factors need to be enhanced or improved. Maybe we can balance the line by improving the infrastructure or putting the right number of traffic enforcers.”

He shared that a traffic algorithm exists in countries like Taiwan, where the flow at intersections are regulated by synchronized traffic lights that adjust to accommodate wherever high vehicle volume has accumulated.

In the Philippines, such technologies are not yet in place, although PIIE will hold a research conference in October for its 25th anniversary, where digital transformation, sustainability, and artificial intelligence have special focus.

Mr. Lim emphasized that the Filipino IE’s concern today is to make do with whatever we have on our hands now and optimize it.

“As to how we will quickly adapt or start to be at par with our wealthier neighbors in terms of the Internet of Things, in terms of having good internet, in terms of robotics or AI, that’s beyond me,” he said.

“Whatever it is that we have achieved or come to, it is IEs’ role in nation building to uphold the discipline of maximizing what we have.”


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