Presenting at the AIM Conference in Groningen

The European Academy for Industrial Management (AIM) invited co-author Torbjørn Netland and me to speak at their 45th annual conference in Groningen, NL, about what students should learn in Industrial Engineering and Management and how they should learn it. AIM is a society of academics in the field, and they had a keen interest in our Introduction to Manufacturing.

This was the opportunity for me to present our concept of Industrial Engineering as the engineering of human work and for Torbjørn to describe innovations in teaching methods that were accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in the use of video materials in flipped classrooms and the application of AI in interactions with students.

We don’t want our book used for boring lectures!

Textbook Writing for the 2020s

As many audience members were fellow authors, it was also an opportunity to discuss the technical aspects of textbook writing and share the experience of working with publishers.

Most Authors Obey Publishers

Most authors follow publishers’ guidelines and turn in chapters in Microsoft Word with illustrations made with PowerPoint or Excel, and leave the production of the book, including the choice of font, page layout, cover design, and many other details to the publisher.

We Took Another Path.

First, as co-authors 6,000 miles and 9 time zones apart, we used Google Docs to draft chapters for its collaboration features. In addition, we exchanged ideas in a Slack workspace and touched base on Zoom every week for 5 years.

Once we had most of the text and pictures we wanted, we switched over to Adobe InDesign, because it is the software our publisher uses to produce books. We did this to keep control of the final appearance of the book and to shorten the time between the acceptance of our product by the publisher and its release.

My three previous books, Lean Assembly, Lean Logistics, and Working with Machines were all with Productivity Press between 2002 and 2007, and my editor’s feedback was that providing my books in print-ready form reduced the production time from nine to three months.

Like many other Adobe products, InDesign is powerful but takes time to learn. If you want the first phrase in bullet list items to be semi-bold, you can do it book wide with a single Find/Replace command,… once you find out how to write such a command.

We also used Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop for figures and R/ggplot2 for plots. Partway through, Torbjørn hired ETH students Susanne Barthl and Katalin Tesch to help with these tools. Meanwhile, I also enlisted my wife Catherine Baudin to develop code that automatically extracted relevant phrases from the text for indexing.

Publishers’ Services to Authors

When working with publishers, authors used to expect the following kinds of services:

  • A single point of contact. For my three previous books, I worked with the same acquisitions editor for about 10 years, and I am still in contact with him. This book project, on the other hand, was passed around to about 5 editors.
  • A book editor. On previous books, I a book editor helped me structure the content, and advised me on sections to omit or enhance. On this project, we were on our own.
  • Reviews of early drafts. The only way we could get early reviews was by us directly sending drafts to friends. 
  • Endorsements. We solicited all the endorsements. The publisher’s only “contribution” was to omit the strongest one, from MIT’s Prof. Charles Fine, on the back cover.
  • Cover art. We developed the cover art, and it’s a picture Torbjørn bought the rights for.
  • Copy editing. Most of the copy editing was done by Grammarly. We did, however, receive some feedback about pictures not being sharp enough, which we fixed.
  • Producing and releasing the book. We provided the publisher with a book that was ready to print and release as an ebook, but it still took them 6 months. It came out in December 2022, missing the window for the 2022-23 academic year.

None of our fellow authors around the room stood up to say they had a better experience with publishers. So why don’t they self-publish? Torbjørn and I considered it when we started. A friend like Katie Anderson does self-publish, successfully, but her book is not a university textbook. We didn’t think our book stood a chance in this space without the brand of an established publisher.

Also, the book publishing business, always tough, is getting tougher. P-books decline in favor of e-books, and books in any form face a challenge from other sources of learning. Publishers have cut down on services to authors in order to save money. However, it won’t help them survive if they drive authors to self-publishing.

Books and Teaching

The conference participants bemoaned the fact that today’s students do not want to read. Having grown up hearing that my generation was decadent because we preferred comics to classics, I take this kind of feeling from professors with a grain of salt and choose to believe that today’s young will turn out fine. It’s leap of faith but they are all we’ve got.

They have grown up playing video games and watching videos on YouTube, Instagram, and now TikTok. The challenges of real problems will make them realize that most of the legacy knowledge is not in these media, and that these media are not necessarily best for all communications.

Video works best to show how to pry loose a stuck garbage disposal, but text instructions, with annotated still images, work better to teach you how to use a piece of software.

While video is an irreplaceable data source to analyze human work, as a medium for teaching, it has limitations:

  1. It’s slow. It is paced by the voice of the narrator, which moves much slower than a reader’s eye across a page. This can be measured by comparing the time it takes to read a page silently and aloud. If, in an emergency, you need to quickly figure out a device, you reach for the written manual.
  2. The learner is passive. Video washes over a viewer at its own pace. Readers, on the other hand, can skip what they don’t need and dwell on what is relevant.
  3. It is sequential. A video is a sequence of frames.  Moving back and forth between frames or viewing multiple frames or scenes simultaneously is not straightforward. Text is sequential, too, but infographics are not.

Growing up, we found out that we couldn’t learn everything we needed from comics and TV. I trust this generation of students to realize that it is true of TikTok too.  They need to read, and libraries contain valuable printed materials that have yet to be digitized.

Industrial Engineering and Management

The subtitle of our book, An Industrial Engineering and Management Perspective, would be a perfect fit with AIM if it hadn’t dropped the word Engineering from its name. It is still in the name of the Scandinavian Academy of Industrial Engineering and Management (ScAIEM), and in the name of European Students of Industrial Engineering and Management (ESTIEM), a student organization that addressed the AIM conference.

The Industrial Engineering Identity Crisis in Academia

Industrial Engineering (IE) in European academia faces the same identity crisis that caused American universities to rename their IE departments Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE or ISyE), Industrial Engineering and Operations Research (IEOR), or Management Science and engineering (MSE). The boundaries of the discipline vary greatly between institutions. This makes it difficult to find how many schools in different countries teach it.

Engineering Taxonomy in the World

The term “Industrial Engineering” was used in Spain decades before the US, to encompass all engineering disciplines used in industry. This included Mechanical, Chemical, Civil, and Electrical Engineering.  Prof. Mareve Alemany Diaz explained that the School of Industrial Engineering at the Polytechnic University of Valencia offers degrees in chemical, energy, and biomedical engineering. That’s why it has 4,000 students in “Industrial Engineering.”

Chinese classifications lump together Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. In the US, Manufacturing Engineering (ME) programs are focused on metalworking and machining processes. The ME departments usually have a machine shop for students. Industrial Engineering programs are about a broader range of operations and may have software simulators, but not machine shops. Is this difference the same in China as in the US? If it is, how many institutions are there for each? This is an issue in India, the UK, and the Netherlands as well.

In Germany, Industrial Engineering translates to Wirtschaftsingenieurwesen, which literally stands for “economic engineering.”  This name evokes more an MBA with enhanced math skills than an assembly line designer.

According to Hironori Hibino, IE programs in Japanese universities are found under multiple labels: IE, Management Engineering (Keieikogaku, 経営工学), and two other terms that both translate to IE, Sangyokogaku (産業工学) and Kogyokogaku (工業工学). 

As expressed in job offers online, American industry has a clearer and more focused view of IE than academia. And it is consistent with the one Torbjørn and I put forth in our book.

The AIM Conference

The AIM conference differed from  earlier conferences I had attended, in that it focused on issues and challenges facing senior professors in charge of Industrial Engineeing and Management programs. Speakers discussed topics like Team-Based Learning and the art of evaluating the performance of individuals within a team. They also presented some of their research projects.

The Conference Venue

Former and current rector

The conference venue was the University of Groningen. It coincided with the passing of the torch from the first woman rector in 400 years to the second. The first was geneticist Cisca Wijmenga; the second, mathematician Jacquelien Scherpen. That Cisca Wijmenga won the 2015 Spinoza Prize also taught me that the Dutch government has named its highest prize after Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza was the son of Portuguese-Jewish refugees, whose philosophy was banned in his lifetime, about 350 years ago.

The Physical Internet

Several of the conference participants work on a project supported by the European Union to develop the Physical Internet. No, it’s not about undersea cable, server farms, or the Internet of thingsn

It is, instead, a worldwide automated freight forwarder. You launch a shipment into it with a destination address. Then it routes itself automatically through a network of warehouses, trucks, trains, or airplanes based on protocols. It finds its way to the recipient like  an email.

The research vision is to have it working by 2040. The participants in this endeavor include the Alliance for Logistics Innovation through Cooperation in Europe (ALICE).

While the vision is attractive, we must not forget the differences between flows of materials and data. The internet splits a message into tiny packets that travel separately between nodes and come back together at the destination. Furthermore, if one packet doesn’t make it to the next node for any reason, the origin node can resend it. But none of this applies to crates of hair dryers.

Humans are more able to route themselves through a transportation network than crates, and therefore, the friction encountered by an international traveler today foreshadows the challenges of implementing the Physical Internet by 2040.

To attend the AIM conference, I rode the Thalys high-speed train from Paris to Schiphol and a Dutch Intercity train from there to Groningen. The rides were fine but the ticketing was not. The ticket I had bought in France bore a code to enter at a kiosk and retrieve the paper ticket for the Dutch segment, but there are no kiosks for ticket retrieval in the Netherlands.

The night before my return, thieves had stolen the copper wires used for electronic signaling between Groningen and Schiphol, which prevented direct trains from running, and I had to go through one more connection. Then, the Thalys from Schiphol back to Paris stopped partway through for 40 minutes due to “a suicidal man on the track.”

Data traffic on the internet is not free of glitches, but working around the glitches to keep data flowing does not usually require human intervention. On the railroad, it does. Across different modes of transportation, it is even more complicated, but the developers of the Physical Internet will need to address these issues diligently for it to work by 2040.

Thanks to Jan Riezebos

Jan Riezebos

Jan Riezebos, from the University of Groningen, masterfully organized and cheerfully led the proceedings. He and I had previously met at the 2009 APIEMS conference in Kitakyushu, Japan where, as a fellow participant told me, I was that year’s token “Lean speaker.” All the other talks were by academics, and mostly about Genetic Algorithms.

According to the conference host, it was because you could get research grants on this subject. 5 years before, it had been Clustering. Now, it most likely is Generative AI.

In Kitakyushu, the most memorable talk had been from Taiwan’s  Mei-Chen Lo about 16 dimensions of data quality, that she had identified with TSMC executives. It’s not only accuracy; other criteria include completeness, understandability, and accessibility. The most memorable event shared with Jan was the visit to the Toto factory in Kitakyushu, where they showcased innovations in toilets, including the washlet, the silent toilet for luxury hotels, the tankless toilet for small apartments, and a particularly slippery coating for toilet bowls…

#industrialengineering, #ie, #industrialmanagement