We’re All Imaginary Engineers

Several years ago a friend who had majored in industrial engineering, or “IE,” at one of the discipline’s premier institutions, Georgia Tech, mentioned to me how irritating it had been when other engineers would refer to his major as “imaginary engineering” because of the perceived lack of analytical rigor relative to other engineering fields.

Back then, the two of us had been occasional karaoke tag-teamers who sang a mean cover of “Tonight, Tonight” bySmashing Pumpkins, and during our jam sessions, we’d often openly commiserate on how different engineering disciplines were at ends and had become so siloed in the context of career opportunities. While my fellow chemical engineers and I were optimizing residence times in reactors, mechanical engineers were streamlining rocket systems, and civil and structural engineers were conducting stability studies on skyscrapers. What were “imaginary engineers” like him to do when they were perceived by others as just number-crunchers relegated to the pen and paper work of stop-watch time studies?

In modern industry, the seemingly pejorative moniker of “imaginary engineering” has tended to be quite applicable, actually—but only if “imaginary” is used in the sense of “complex,” perhaps as a mathematician would, rather than in the sense of some fairy-tale calculator-wielding protagonist.

But first, let’s cue the Wayback Machine and return to post-war America, when the burgeoning discipline of industrial statistics was in its salad days as a formalized profession. Coming off of the production demands during World War II, the United States had become a heavily industrialized nation, complete with an enthusiastic, highly skilled workforce. This potential for further technological advancement was a latent energy source that was waiting to be harnessed for the continued economic growth of the country.

Enter William Edwards Deming, the iconic industrial statistician whose capabilities and unique quantitative vein of diplomacy famously reinvented the Japanese manufacturing industry before he brought those same newfound applications back to the U.S. While such skills were to become very much the DNA of modern day industrial engineering, a specialized competency called “quality” had also begun to be formalized in parallel.

What quality did to industrial engineering was to strategically, but quietly, insert itself into the modernized manufacturing processes. As a profession, quality began to evolve on its own as a standalone discipline. Quality became a profession in which traditional statistical tools were re-applied in novel ways. When the costs of uncontrolled variation reared their Hydra-like heads at the advent of widespread automation, it was this same set of traditional tools that would be later reorganized in the 1990s by Bill Smith of Motorola as “Six Sigma.” And where Six Sigma focused on the minimization of defects, the continuous improvement efforts in Japanese manufacturing systems would become “lean manufacturing,” a system seeking to minimize waste.


None of these quality methods were ever meant to create the guise of infallibility—the industry was after all, made up of human beings, inherently mistake-prone by nature (alas, yes, even engineers). Quality as a profession soon became the intensely customer-driven counterpart to traditional industrial engineering. The two disciplines to this day are often indistinguishable, with the quality departments of some companies being the primary starting point for industrial engineers. In contemporary times, quality tools are still contributing to the reinvention of the business landscape, with recent applications in the realms of finance, healthcare, and global supply chains. Wherever there were inefficiencies to be eliminated, to paraphrase the new-world musings of old-world cartographers, “Here, there be Quality Engineers.”

As a recent American Society for Quality campaign recently posited, the quality profession may be summarized this way: “Making Good Great.” Engineers of all disciplines still seek to satisfy customer, consumer, regulatory, and client needs. We serve the public in a manner that seeks to protect costs, public interests, and maintain safety. Amidst all of this, improving efficiency is forever the golden fleece.

As the business landscape globalizes, technological capabilities will continue to advance, increasing the complexity of the system as a whole. The one unchanging constraint we are faced with is that customer and client requirements will continue to be relentlessly demanding. Quality is a strategic component in order to remain both innovative and competitive.

So this is far from where the fable ends.

The aim of establishing processes in which the client’s needs are consistently being achieved is just the next chapter on how engineering as a profession, independent of field of practice, in the face of ever increasing complexity, will continue to apply quality principles in very real ways.

Quality principles are not just a set of shiny tools, but a fully integrated platform on which the entire engineering profession itself is constructed. There is a call to arms for the continued establishment of a very tangible reality of serving the public good in the name of efficiency while still meeting consumer needs; we continue to build onward and upward.

Interested in learning more?See what a professional quality engineer doesby checking out the body of knowledge published by the American Society for Quality.

Published December 2, 2010 by Austin Lin

Filed under: industry excellence, industrial engineering, quality,

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of and should not be attributable to the National Society of Professional Engineers.

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