Jack, H., "The Role of Product Design in Manufacturing Education", SME Manufacturing Technology Summit, University of Michigan, Dearborn, August, 2004.

The Role of Product Design in Manufacturing Education

Dr. Hugh Jack, P.Eng., Grand Valley State University


Like most ABET accredited Manufacturing Engineering programs in the country, we are seeing a decline in enrollment in enrollments. This is not necessarily because there is a lack of demand for our graduates from the manufacturing sector, but because students select other areas of study. In many cases this decision is based upon poor impressions of manufacturing (the dirty factory), a lack of knowledge about Manufacturing Engineering, or impressions that manufacturing jobs are disappearing. Alas, it is the word 'manufacturing' that raises these concerns among students choosing majors.

This paper describes one possible method to reform a manufacturing curriculum to increase student enrollment, and to better serve industry. Briefly, the approach proposed involves recognizing products as the prime reason for manufacturing. This then drives some refinements in the curriculum and revised program names that are more appealing to the general public.


Manufacturing Engineering education may soon be extinct. In most cases (if not all), the remaining 20 accredited programs in the U.S. are shrinking as the number of incoming students dwindles. To date a handful of the accredited programs have already closed. At my institution Manufacturing Engineering is the only engineering program that is not growing. Unfortunately, this is understandable when we consider that most students base their choices on the negative information and images promoted by the mass media. We are at the point where we must act.

The Problems We Face

The image of manufacturing is poor among the general public as reiterated in the summary of student sentiments quoted below [1] from a report by the National Association of Manufacturers. The report goes on to discuss similar perceptions from parents and teachers. These images are not easily dispelled and are repeatedly reinforced by news reports of 'layoffs' and the closure of factories.

When asked to describe the images that they associate with a career in manufacturing, student respondents quickly and consistently offered phrases such as "production or assembly line work" work in a "factory" or "plant" that is "repetitious," "boring," "tedious," "dangerous," "dark" and "dirty." They felt that manufacturing required "hard work" and "long hours" but provided only "low pay," with "no chance for promotion" or "benefits." Others equated a career in manufacturing to "serving a life sentence" and being "on a chain gang," "slave to the line" or even a "robot."

Similar perceptions exist at the college level. Students considering Manufacturing Engineering studies will commonly be directed to Mechanical Engineering instead to "keep their doors open." In addition, manufacturing programs are often incorrectly perceived as less rigorous, and many of the students that are directed to Manufacturing Engineering are under-prepared. This leads to a self fulfilling perception.

This combination of small numbers and lower preparation levels has begun to impact industry. One notable trend is that some of the lost manufacturing jobs are moving to strong economies with high wages, and large supplies of well educated engineers and other related areas [1].

Appealing to Students

Manufacturing Engineering programs can be revitalized if the image (and content) can be realigned to attract more academically qualified students. A list of positive images that we should communicate are listed below.

not tied to a desk or a production line

flexible time, not punching clocks

more dynamic career choices

designing and building

helping society and making a difference

using new high-technologies, computers and methods

work with a diverse group of people

determining the best ways to satisfy customers

important roles in companies including management

good salaries, benefits and bonuses

managing large budgets

travel to many interesting places and cultures

support the security of the country by building self-dependence

I may go so far as speculating that many of these images will also be useful in attracting historically underrepresented groups to the discipline.

Reclaiming Our Curriculum

The history of engineering is long and complex, but has always included manufacturing as a critical thread. This has been good for continued development of the field in general, but it has made it difficult for manufacturing to emerge as a distinct discipline. For example, the distinction between Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineering is vague and debatable. The sample list of topics below are normally associated with a Mechanical Engineering curriculum.

stresses and FEA

thermal sciences



power transmission


Manufacturing Engineering can be more difficult to define because it refers to a 'how', not a 'what' as do other disciplines. This list below is also another simple effort to list topics that are essential to the process of manufacturing. Please note, in this list there are many items that are normally claimed by Mechanical Engineers, or that they learned after graduation, at work.

plant layout and organization


GD&T / tolerances / quality

process selection / DFx

manufacturing processes

customer driven demand to product

materials (overlap with materials dept)

Recognizing Our Contribution

Our discipline has been limited by an inappropriate choice of titles (and focus). Most disciplines are aligned with the outcomes of their efforts. The Electrical Engineers claim the computer and Mechanical Engineers, the automobile. For us the outcomes of our efforts are products. In fact, this is the pivotal concept. Most of the engineering effort involved in producing an item such as an automobile is not the solution of fluid, thermal, combustion and stress problems. It is the work to make the product manufacturable at a competitive cost. Unfortunately topics such as tolerancing, materials, part/assembly geometry, assembly and process selection are delegated to mechanical engineers who have not been educated in the subtleties of the manufacturing process. By focusing on precesses we have lost focus on the objectives of our calling: to engineer products so that they can be manufactured efficiently and satisfy customers. It is for this reason that I will use the term Product Engineer for the rest of this paper to imply that these engineers are/should be educated in product manufacturing and product design.

At the senior level Product Engineering involves teams of people working together to assess customer needs, design a product that satisfies those needs, develop a system to manufacture the products, and finally production. The role of a Product Engineer is to act as an architect in this process, ensuring that the product moves smoothly from concept to eventual production. Early in the life of a product they are intimately involved in the design process, to address manufacturing needs. From the beginning they plan and eventually implement manufacturing processes and systems for the product. As the product is manufactured they will then refine the system to make the product more competitive.

The Importance of Product Design

Innovative design is recognized as a strategic advantage for U.S. companies [4]. Design is also seen as a tool to expand markets to include previously underrepresented groups [5], [6]. Product Design is an important component in improving the image of our discipline. Consider the student comments in Appendix A. They clearly show a high level of regard for the ability to design and willingness to contribute. There is no question that being so closely involved with the manufacturing process makes us the most qualified to deal with product design. In the absence of knowledge about manufacturing processes and assembly, it is very difficult to select meaningful tolerances for a part, not to mention other aspects of form and function. And, ultimately it is the manufacturing process that must satisfy the customer's needs. Unfortunately, the situation is obfuscated when Design is used as a generic term or Product Design is confused with Mechanical Design.

How Do We Do It?

Chemical Engineering programs recently faced a remarkably similar dilemma [3]. They were losing students to programs with names that suggested 'bio-technology', even though their programs already contained large portions of this material. Their response has to redesign curriculum and rename programs appropriately. We can benefit from their experience and combat the problem using a few well planned steps.

1a. We must recognize Product Engineering as a very complex discipline that calls from all other engineering disciplines.

1b. Emphasize that the complexity nature of Product Engineering requires highly talented individuals who are highly motivated, people oriented, intellectually inquisitive, have a broader perspective and want to help people. A 'shopping list' of skills is provided for the purposes of discussion.

likes to design and build
well rounded: able to relate to diverse perspectives and disciplines
people skills: to work with people of diverse backgrounds and interests
"Big Picture": can integrate the design process
act as an architect to call for other disciplines when necessary. e.g., MEs for stress problems
solid analytical skills to tune/optimize processes and design
understand the implications of design decisions on manufacturing
take the product from the needs of the customer to the final result
be agents of change: act as entrepreneurs who can reshape companies from within, or build from the ground up.
effective communicators

2. Identify a core set of topics that are essential to Product Design and Manufacturing and recognize them as core to the discipline. Other disciplines must be encouraged to take advantage of these, but recognize them as Product Engineering topics, such as tolerancing.

3. Begin to carefully differentiate 'Product Design' from other disciplines such as 'Mechanical Design".

4. Redesign curricula to recognize 'Products' as the driving force and rename programs accordingly.

5. Involve others in the discussion to establish recognition of the role of Product Engineers. This should include professional groups, manufacturers, schools and the media.

A Product Engineering Curriculum Strawman

To explore the formal incorporation of Product Engineering into the curriculum I have included a sample study plan from our program in Figure 1. In this plan the current curriculum is shown in the left-hand column without the general education courses. A possible implementation is shown on the right hand side. (Note: the fundamental courses are unchanged.) In total EGR 371 and 373 are replaced with a more mature course, EGR 472, that combines the topics. EGR 470: Product and Process Design is eliminated and replaced with two new design courses, EGR 301 and 401.

EGR 301 Product Design I An introductory course that addresses product design early in the curriculum to keep the students engaged. Topics include; rapid prototyping, patents, mathematical tolerance analysis, GD&T, customers and their needs, material and process selection. This could be available to Mechanical Students as an elective.

EGR 401 Product Design II A subsequent course to Product Design I. Should should have EGR 301 as a pre-req. Topics include advanced design, design justification, patents, etc.

EGR 472 Simulation, Scheduling and Control a combination of the current EGR 371: Process Scheduling and Control and EGR 373: Manufacturing System Simulation.


Figure 1: A Sample Comparison of the Current and New Curricula

What About Accreditation?

The ABET definition of manufacturing below recognizes that product design is clearly a component of the discipline. In this text the product design aspects are underlined.

The program must demonstrate that graduates have proficiency in materials and manufacturing processes: understanding the behavior and properties of materials as they are altered and influenced by processing in manufacturing; process, assembly and product engineering: understanding the design of products and the equipment, tooling, and environment necessary for their manufacture; manufacturing competitiveness: understanding the creation of competitive advantage through manufacturing planning, strategy, and control; manufacturing systems design: understanding the analysis, synthesis, and control of manufacturing operations using statistical and calculus based methods, simulation and information technology; laboratory experience: graduates must be able to measure manufacturing process variables in a manufacturing laboratory and make technical inferences about the process.

How Will This Change Things?

In many ways this will not change the core topics taught in our programs. In many ways we have done the analysis and this will actually strengthen the manufacturing content of our curriculum. However, it does provide a clearer focus for the curriculum that is easier to relate to others, including prospective students. It also allows us to appeal to more gifted students who want be more than a "slave to the line." In the end it will help us serve the manufacturers by providing them with more well educated graduates. Moreover, the Product Engineering emphasis will fit corporate needs better than existing programs by filling important gaps as identified by the SME Manufacturing Education Plan [2].

1. Business Knowledge/Skills

2. Supply Chain Management

3. Project Management

4. International Perspective

5. Materials

6. Manufacturing Process Control

7. Written & Oral Communication

8. Product/Process Design


10. Specific Manufacturing Processes

11. Manufacturing Systems

12.Problem Solving

13. Teamwork (working effectively with others)

14. Personal Attributes

15. Engineering Fundamentals

The focus on product design will emphasize a positive image of American manufacturers as innovators focused on the development of new products. We will be able to graduate more engineers capable of doing high level product engineering that will enable many companies to remain in the U.S. without compromising competitive advantages to countries with lower labor costs, or well educated workforces.


[1] "Keeping America Competitive; How a Talent Shortage Threatens U.S. Manufacturing", a National Association of Manufacturers White Paper, http://www.nam.org, 2003.

[2] "Manufacturing Education Plan; Phase III: 2001-2002 Critical Competency Gaps", the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation, http://www.sme.org/downloads/foundation/Competency_Gap.pdf, 2001.

[3] Halford, B., "Pursuing New Paths", ASEE Prism, http://www.prism-magazine.org/nov03/pursuing_paths.cfm, Nov., 2003.

[4] SERVICES 2000; A Conference and Dialogue on Global Policy Developments and U.S. Business, http://www.ita.doc.gov/td/sif/2kfullreport.htm, 1999.

[5] Kanter, E., "Women in the Driving Seat", Asbury Park Press, http://www.app.com/ontherun/story/0,20853,948356,00.html, April 21, 2004.

[6] McNulty, Z. (translated by), "Female Printer from Epson", http://www.techjapan.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=170&mode=thread&order=0&thold=0, Mar., 16, 2004

Appendix A: Comments From Incoming Students

Students responses to a question in a freshman CAD/CAM course. The survey was given at the beginning of the semester. The answers below correspond to the question "Why do you want to be an engineer?" Note: The comments are presented 'as-is' including spelling and grammar mistakes.

I have just come to realize that engineering is the type of work that I
want to do; and that was reinforced by my internship at [company name removed] this past summer.
I have always loved the building and mechanics of weapons, computers,
and Air-craft. I wish to learn how to build and design such things and
make those we have better.
I've always loved designing and building things, especially with
computers. Engineering just seemed to be the natural choice for me.
I love computers and i dont want to be a programmer. I would love to
design computer systems or something in that area. The best way to do
this is to be an engineer.
Because I have always been intrested in buildings and how they are
constructed. I loved Legos and building whatever I could out of them and
now I want to enter into a career that is similar in a sense to that. I
love to build and I take pride in completing something that is going to
be used by many. Question 5: My fist Math class at GVSU is Math 203:
Not listed
I enjoy designing things.
because I feel it is the most important and essential job on earth.
Everything comes from engineering
I would like to become an engineer because they have a hand in
everything that is used by people, from toasters to automobiles. I would
like to become a member of the group who makes the items we use better
for everybody.
I like to design things with AutoCAD, and I thought being an engineer
would fit me best
Engineering sounded like a career that I would enjoy the most because
of my sciences interest. It also sounded like a profession that would be
profitable. Finally, designing useful products is a good goal in life.
I want to be an engineer because I make/build/design anything I want
within reason and then sell it for a profit, benifiting myself, and my
fellow humans.
I am really enjoy solving complicating problems.
I want to be an engineer because i feel that i would excel in this
career and enjoy this . I attended a camp that really helped me to
decide that engineering was for me. That camp was the [name removed]
For technology held on the [name removed] Universtiy Campus. I decided
then that i really enjoyed problam solveing coming up with new and out
of the box ideas. I believe that you must enjoy your job in order to be
successful in your job. THis is why i choose to be an engineer.
I think that there are really two main reasons why I want to become and
engineer. The first reason is that I enjoy this kind of working. I like
work that makes me think and I enjoy working through challenges. The
second reason is that my dad is and engineer and so I have worked with
him and that is how I have gotten some insite into the field.
I've always like math and science and also like to design things.
i like the challenge and i like the money and i like to play with
I have been know to be very structured and logical. Plus I love to
build things especially electronics.
I would really like to design boats some day
I want to have a career that I can like and make a difference in a
To have the ability to change, shape, and determine the future.
It's who I am. I've always thought I would be one and it interests me.
I like working with problems and comming up with unseen ways to fix
them. We'll see how it goes!

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