If nearly everything we use today, from baby bottles to computers, is made in China, why would a young, talented student choose to study manufacturing? And why should U.S. colleges and universities be concerned about improving manufacturing education?
Of course, not everything is made in China. The U.S. manufactures many goods, especially high-value products in the technology, aerospace, defense, automotive and food industries. U.S. manufacturing produces $1.7 trillion in goods, comprises nearly 12% of the GDP, and employs 9% of Americans, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. Manufacturing is a vital sector of the U.S. economy and contributes significantly to America’s overall economic strength.
And according to the Boston Consulting Group, the U.S. will soon be manufacturing even more. BCG’s research shows that the cost to produce goods in China is rising, while U.S. production costs are decreasing because of automation and efficiency programs. In fact, the U.S. is becoming one of the most competitive places to do business, with the added benefits of better quality control and easier resolution of IP issues. Even if a U.S. company outsources production, it still needs highly skilled professionals who understand the manufacturing process.
Yet colleges and universities are not educating enough students to fill even the current available positions in manufacturing. According to the Society for Manufacturing Engineers (SME), there is a serious skill gap in the U.S. manufacturing workforce — from technician to engineer to manager. SME estimates that 600,000 manufacturing jobs in the U.S. went unfilled at the height of the recent recession, from 2009-2012, due to a lack of skilled professionals.
A recent white paper from SME called on higher education to improve its manufacturing courses and programs. The report states, “There are relatively small numbers of manufacturing students and graduates, outdated manufacturing curricula, resource shortages and a lack of emphasis on hiring, preparing and supporting manufacturing educators.” SME recommends attracting more students to manufacturing by showing them that the field can be creative and high-tech; improving the quality and consistency of manufacturing curricula; integrating manufacturing topics into STEM courses and developing more manufacturing faculty.
There are compelling reasons why educational institutions should invest in their manufacturing curricula. Gaining a basic understanding of manufacturing practices can:
- Make all engineering students, no matter what their chosen area of specialization, better engineers.
- Fast track students into leadership positions, where they can have a large impact in their field or industry.
- Open new career opportunities.
At Harvey Mudd, the Engineering Department has been working to incorporate more manufacturing concepts and knowledge into the general engineering program. To that end, we’ve been integrating manufacturing knowledge into existing courses, creating new courses and hiring new faculty with industry experience. One of those new faculty members is professor of manufacturing practice Kash Gokli, a former VP of manufacturing at Amano USA Holdings, with a 30-year career in industry. Gokli began teaching in fall 2012.
I spoke with Professor Gokli about how to integrate more manufacturing knowledge into the engineering curriculum.
Why bring more manufacturing practice to engineering programs?
Manufacturing knowledge makes students better engineers, no matter what type of engineering they pursue in the future. Engineers can’t design in isolation; they need to take into account that they are working on products for mass volume production and Six Sigma level quality.
Take the Engineering Clinic program, in which student teams solve real-world problems for industry sponsors. Every engineering student must complete three semesters of Clinic to graduate. Companies are coming to us with increasingly complex Clinic projects, and they are looking for working solutions, not just prototypes. Students need to not only design a solution, but make sure that their design can be mass produced—in a cost effective way, with high quality and a steady supply chain. By deepening our students’ knowledge about the modern manufacturing practices and processes, we can raise their overall effectiveness and engineering knowledge to an even higher level.
In what ways have you been strengthening manufacturing education?
We have been introducing more manufacturing topics into this early course so that students are exposed to a bigger picture as they learn the design process. If you are a design engineer and you don’t understand manufacturing, how can you be an effective engineer? Our objective is to make the design engineers better design engineers because they understand manufacturing, and they take that into account when they’re designing.
How important is management skills in manufacturing education?
Engineers sometimes want to be technically very good, and they feel that’s it. So we teach that the formula for success is technical skills plus people and management skills. An engineer’s project may be technically perfect and look beautiful on paper, but it still needs to be implemented. To do that successfully, one has to take into account the people involved in implementing the project. How do you understand people, and how do you manage different people differently? So we talk about these issues in courses, such as E4 and the newly created course Management of Technical Enterprise that includes financial management, people management, and company management. We already see students benefiting from this knowledge in their team projects for courses as well as in the Clinic program, where they have to function as if they were internal staff of a company and complete their project within a set timeframe and budget.
The tools and techniques we teach in manufacturing are actually being used to manage in many fields. How to be efficient. How to produce high quality but keep cost low. Tools such as lean manufacturing and Six Sigma manufacturing are being used in hospitals, in the fast food industry, in insurance companies, back office operations, wherever folks are looking to streamline. One of my students recently told me, “I can use this in my daily life.”
Is this something unusual for undergraduate engineering education?
Major universities have manufacturing courses, but usually only students who specialize in manufacturing take the courses. You would also find courses like ours in a master’s program, albeit in more detail, for students specializing in industrial engineering, manufacturing engineering, quality engineering or supply chain.
What we have done is integrate these manufacturing topics into our general engineering program. Our students don’t specialize; when they graduate they are called engineer. What we are teaching them is the foundation — the problem-solving skills, how to be an engineer. Today’s problems are not mechanical problems or electronics problems or manufacturing problems. They’re all interrelated. So knowing the basics in all those areas gives them that foundation, which they can build upon. When our engineers go out into companies, they have a broad base of knowledge. Someone who specialized in say, electronics, might at first be more knowledgeable in that area, but what happens is that our engineers, who know the basics in electronics but who also know many other areas well, learn the extra information quickly and go on to be more effective and quickly move into leadership roles.