When Alex Hurtado came to Northern Illinois University, she had never heard of industrial and systems engineering.
At the urging of her cousin, an engineering student, the freshman business major joined the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, a student group dedicated to supporting Latinx students in STEM.
“I was the business student, so I was handling the budgets,” Hurtado said. “I kept meeting all these girls who became my friends, and they kept saying, ‘I think you’d like industrial engineering.’”
Hurtado attended a class with a friend and fell in love.
“It’s a little bit of business, a little bit of process. An industrial engineer is in between a businessperson and a technical person,” she said. “Some businesspeople don’t think technically and some people are so immersed in the technical details they don’t think strategically. But you need both to ensure a measurable impact.”
Industrial and systems engineering is an unsung engineering field, in part because it can be invisible when done well. Industrial engineers analyze data and use that analysis to design and improve everything from devices to processes to workflow.
Many people only recognize industrial and systems engineering, or ISYE, when it is missing – when a process is inefficient, a project is too expensive, or a wait is too long.
“Industrial engineers don’t make things. Industrial engineers improve things,” ISYE student Madisen Frye said.
The senior design projects the two women completed during their final semester in the spring of 2018 demonstrate how ISYE can be applied to virtually any field. Hurtado worked with an industrial client; her project reduced inefficiencies in the way a dye company changed dye colors in its machinery. The system she and her partners developed reduced down time on the production line and saved the company at least $90,000 a year.
Frye and her partners worked on the patient intake and scheduling processes at the registration desk of a medical clinic in an effort to shorten wait times, increase patient privacy and improve the overall patient experience.
After Hurtado experienced the ISYE class with her friend, she talked to the department chair, Dr. Purush Damodaran.
“He’s very inspirational,” she said. “He talks into the stars about what can be, and when you’re young that’s what you need. He really inspired me.”
Hurtado changed her major and entered the world of industrial engineering. She obtained her first internship the summer after her freshman year, working in a manufacturing plant.
“I was doing a lot of lean manufacturing – very industrial stuff, on-the-line process improvement,” she said. “I asked [the interim dean] whether I could take a Six Sigma class, and he said, ‘No, I have a better idea. You should talk to this team.’ He picked up the phone right then and there; I didn’t even have a resume.”
Then-Interim Dean Omar Ghrayeb connected Hurtado with NIU engineering alumnus Matt Kroll, ’99, who worked with and mentored Hurtado for the next two years. Kroll is the founder and president of Chalmers St. Consulting, which helps companies to grow and develop their workers through systemic problem solving and continuous improvement processes.
“I learned not just about the technical aspects of continuous improvement, but about people,” Hurtado said. “It’s a corporate game; it’s emotional intelligence. It’s not just about the right process, it’s about how to network with people to get the resources you need to make that process work.”
Hurtado said she loves the holistic nature of industrial and systems engineering.
“A mechanical engineer does their piece and they’re done,” she said. “A systems engineer looks at everything from end to end to make sure the product is the right quality, makes money and allows future opportunities for improvement. The best part about it is you are not going to do the same thing every day. You can really do anything.”