New curriculum ties engineering techniques to service industry

University Park, Pa. -- Helping hospitals reduce the errors made in distributing the numerous drugs needed by hundreds of patients, department stores shrink warehouse inventory while keeping the hottest products available on shelves, and shipping giants guarantee a package gets to its destination overnight are just some of the challenges Penn State College of Engineering students will tackle in a new service process engineering curriculum.

"Historically, process improvement has been a part of engineering, but it's typically been applied to something physical, like a production line," explains Richard Koubek, head of industrial engineering in the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, which features the new curriculum. "Now the service industry is getting involved. Today, service process engineering is improving less concrete applications, such as the scheduling of hospital rooms."

Service process engineering is the science of reducing or eliminating waste and inefficiency from an operation. For example, hospitals are borrowing ideas from automotive manufacturers to troubleshoot and streamline processes such as patient billing, reducing the time a patient spends in an office visit, and trimming the number of infections patients receive in intensive care.

"Proper engineering of any process within the service industry will have a direct impact on a company's product quality and cost structure, which ultimately improves a company's position in the market," says Severn McMurtry, vice president of operations engineering for FedEx Ground and a 1985 industrial engineering alumnus. "By having service process engineering in the industrial engineering curriculum, Penn State acknowledges how large and important the service sector has become in today's economy. It also indicates that Penn State realizes how service industries can and should be engineered, just like any other industry."

Starting this fall, industrial engineering students will have the opportunity to complete a capstone design project in service process engineering. Koubek says the projects will cover areas such as health-care delivery, entertainment and distribution.

The department has recently created a track of study in service process engineering, which will include three new courses. The new classes are among the first of their kind offered in the United States for undergraduates. The first, Introduction to Service Process Engineering, will be offered in spring 2005 with the other courses coming online in fall 2005.

"We see service process engineering as an umbrella under which courses and research in financial engineering, auctions, electronic commerce, logistics and supply chains will stand," states Terry Friesz, Harold and Inge Marcus Chaired Professor of Industrial Engineering, and one of the faculty members spearheading the curriculum's development.

The curriculum's goals were formed with the help of an advisory board of alumni from many prominent companies, including FedEx, Hershey Foods, Walt Disney World, Salomon Smith Barney, ICT Group, CM Partners, Private Wealth Management, AllHealth, PELCO,, U.S. Securities Associates, and ActiveStrategy.

"More than 85 percent of the working population is employed in the service sector, and this sector continues to expand," says Charles Schneider, president and CEO of U.S. Securities Associates and advisory board member. "Despite the huge size and importance of the service industry, little study of the sector's work processes has been done by industrial engineers. Partly as a result, many major service industries suffer from low quality and productivity."

Koubek adds, "The engineering approach to problem solving is a very powerful framework and its application shouldn't be limited to the shop floor."

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Last Updated March 19, 2009