Q&A with S. David Wu

S. David Wu is the Dean and Lee A. Iacocca Endowed Chair of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. He will be giving his keynote presentation at the IIE Annual Conference Sunday, May 19. 

What is the most exciting development or, conversely, the most pressing challenge in the field of industrial and systems engineering today?

Probably the most exciting development is that many of the grand challenges for our society today have opened up new opportunities for the profession of industrial engineering to contribute. I’m referring to some of the big challenges that we all read about in the public press – healthcare delivery, energy and the environment, and infrastructures systems. These are big issues that are facing our world and the systems approach that’s central to the industrial engineering profession plays a crucial role in tackling these grand challenges. I think it’s an opportune time to participate and make a real difference.

In terms of pressing challenges for the field of industrial and systems engineering, being the dean of an engineering college, I can speak to the challenges in an academic setting. Creative problem solving, at least in the areas I speak of, requires large coalitions and multidisciplinary partnerships. Building those bridges between industrial engineering and other engineering disciplines is not always easy, and oftentimes requires years of persistent effort. It is much harder to build these coalitions from scratch than reinforcing partnerships that were already there. I see successful ISE groups as those who are well-connected with others and are leading in addressing big issues coming onto the horizon, while less successful groups are slow to adapt to those changes.

What do you plan to discuss in your keynote presentation?

I will talk about interdisciplinary partnership and coalition in addressing grand challenges – both at a strategic conceptual level and on the pragmatic side of it, too. At the conceptual level, why these problems are important and what are some of the unique perspectives and tools ISE’s offer that make them important partners; the roles of data and analytics, processes and human factors, etc. On the pragmatic side, we know there is a shrinking federal budget, and there are still some economic challenges out there in the industry. So in terms of exploring opportunities for funding – either research funding or funding for business development or other aspects of the IE profession – we are going to face a climate of shrinking resources and increasing competition. How to form meaningful coalitions and unique partnerships and to think “outside the box” becomes essential in competing favorably in this environment.

IEs have a tradition of working with other disciplines and extracting the essentials for problem solving. We want to renew that tradition and form connectivity with not only other engineering professions but also disciplines in natural sciences, mathematics, business and social sciences. The point is that the technological and social contexts are changing so fast that no single discipline can grasp the full extent of these complex, interrelated issues. With the advent of social media and other collaboration tools, partnership and coalition has become the key ingredient for creative problem solving.

In the academic world, ISE faculty may be concerned about the future with the federal R&D budget shrinking: How do they get their research supported, and how do they support their graduate programs and their students and so on? In my view, it’s crucial to keep pace with the rapid changing problem domains that our graduates will be facing; it may be necessary to envision new frameworks of thinking that go “outside the traditional IE box,” and it will be necessary to retool or develop new tools. Like any other engineering disciplines, to stay strong is to stay relevant, and that is the challenge for engineering education as a whole.

What would you like attendees to take away from your presentation?

Maybe the most important take-away message is industrial and systems engineering, by its nature, is always a fast-changing field and by definition changes with the industry, with the economy, with the main driving force that’s out there in society. So being able to adapt and manage that change is really critical. So I guess that would be my main message in terms of adjusting that world view, and staying relevant to what’s needed in the broader environment is crucial. So professionally, I think the industrial engineering profession needs to be keenly aware of those changes and be able to adapt and form those kinds of partnerships that I mentioned earlier.

For more information about S. David Wu and the other IIE Annual Conference keynote speakers, go to the Keynote Speakers page at www.iienet.org/annual. 

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