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Q&A with Mica Endsley

Mica Endsley is the chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force, serving as the chief scientific adviser to the chief of staff and secretary of the Air Force. She will be giving her keynote presentation at the IIE Annual Conference Monday, June 2.

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

I think one of the key challenges facing us today is the transition from what in our field has historically been a lot of physical, manual-type operations into more information-based operations. By that I mean so much of what we do now involves information flowing across computer networks, whether you’re managing a company or whether you’re a commander in charge of a military operation – it’s really very information-centric. And that’s really a fundamental shift in the types of systems that our profession is trying to address. So I think that what we really need to be focusing on is transferring the types of processes that we’ve traditionally used for getting better efficiency and effectiveness in physical systems into these information-based operations. This is a transition that’s been happening really over the last several decades, and we’ve seen some of that occur, but I think there are a lot of opportunities for more of that to happen.

Today’s systems are hampered by a lot of stove-piped, disconnected applications where information doesn’t flow effectively across the different types of software applications people may be using. They have very different interfaces and overall there’s a lot of inefficiency still built into those systems. And I do believe that this is an area where industrial and systems engineering has a lot to offer in terms of improving the effectiveness of our information operations.

I also want to talk some about the fact that I think a lot of the new technologies actually provide a lot of new opportunities for providing new capabilities for our profession that haven’t necessarily been there in the past. And I’ll be talking about some of those during my talk as well.

What do you plan to discuss in your keynote presentation? 

What I’m going to talk about in the keynote is how industrial engineering is being applied in United States Air Force operations in wide-ranging areas including manufacturing, logistics, process improvement and human-system integration.

Is industrial engineering a specific department in the Air Force, or does it fall under myriad areas?

I see it being very highly distributed in a lot of different kinds of organizations who are probably using them in very different ways. So everything from people in the Air Force Research Labs who are working on improved manufacturing processes and trying to solve future human-system integration problems to people who are working current problems in process improvement throughout the organization or logistics – they’re really embedded across a wide variety of organizations. 

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

I think they’ll get a basic understanding of how industrial engineers are used in the Air Force, but also hopefully some perspectives on the many opportunities and needs that are available for improving operations into the future. And the Air Force is actually a very interesting example because it is such a large distributed organization. It has to operate both daily ongoing types of operations from flying and maintaining aircraft to being able to launch on a moment’s notice to doing distributed operations in some other country where they have large logistics challenges. So it’s a very multifaceted type of organization to look at opportunities for how industrial engineering can benefit these kinds of future challenges.

I’ve always found as well, having worked on the industry side on military programs for much of my career, that one of the interesting things is you get a lot of technological change and technological advances being brought into military systems very early on, before later migrating out into commercial applications. So often you really get to work on that cutting-edge of technology, and that’s where you see a lot of the innovation occur. I’ve always found that to be an exciting aspect of working on military programs. Plus you know that what you’re working on could help save people’s lives, and that’s what is most important.

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



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