ISE: Soaring on Two Wings

Doug Peterson

 It’s easy to miss when you enter the Transportation Building on Mathews Avenue, the home of ISE. But if you look closely, you’ll see images of railroads on the walls and railings.

As you approach the main entrance, direct your eyes to the roofline, and you’ll see four winged locomotive wheels carved in stone, with two more winged wheels on the north side of the building and one on the south. Even the handrails on the banisters inside carry the design of a train wheel.

The railroad imagery is there because the Department of Railway Engineering was once housed in the Transportation Building. Today, the railway department is long gone, and the Transportation Building is now home to ISE. But these symbols are a reminder that technology is constantly evolving and so are departments, including ISE.

ISE’s last major transformation came in the spring of 2006, when the College of Engineering decided to combine the Department of General Engineering (established in 1952) with the college’s industrial engineering program. Like the two wings depicted on the building’s locomotive wheels, this merger brought together two important realms of engineering—industrial engineering and systems engineering.

“When I was thinking of coming to Illinois, there was chatter about this brand-new department called ISE,” recalls Harrison Kim, an ISE professor. “So, as I was considering options for my career, I knew that Illinois was a top engineering program, and now they were creating a new department. When would I have an opportunity like this again?”

Kim joined ISE in 2005 as one of the inaugural members of the new department, and he never looked back.

There is a lot of overlap between both parts of ISE—systems engineering and industrial engineering—but Kim says that the department’s catch-phrases help to distinguish between the two wings. 

Systems engineers make better things.

Industrial engineers make things better.

In other words, systems engineers develop new systems and new ways of doing things, while industrial engineers take existing systems and improve them at a new level.

“Think of it this way,” Kim says. “If you have a gas-powered engine, industrial engineers will find ways to improve it.” Systems engineers might go in an entirely new direction, developing an engine using renewable energy.

The following stories focus on research from both wings of the department— systems engineering (making better things) and industrial engineering (making things better). However, some of the professors featured in these stories, such as Carolyn Beck, split their research between systems and industrial engineering.

 According to Beck, “Optimization is a big part of ISE’s work—trying to make things perform as well as they can. For instance, we have people looking at optimization in respect to financial process, and that was fairly original.

“The department is going in a lot of new directions,” she adds. But continual change is precisely what makes a dynamic system. It’s also what makes a dynamic department.

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Coming into the ISE department as a Systems Engineering and Design, RuthAnn Haefli may have been conflicted about what her secondary field option would be, but because of her experience with computer-assisted design (CAD) she knew systems engineering and design was the perfect fit