September 28, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic caused lasting disruptions in worldwide supply chains. Car lots are empty. Paper products are limited at some stores. And holiday shopping has already begun in anticipation of empty shelves. Meet Jim Noble, an expert in logistics and supply chain operation optimization who could see that this was going to happen.
Noble is chair of the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering (IMSE), where he’s spent nearly three decades teaching students to be prepared for and manage operations with respect to uncertainty.
“In our program, we have at least five courses that are inherently about how to analyze variability and make decisions to mitigate its impact,” he said. “Many managers don’t understand the impact of variability on the performance of their systems, and that’s why COVID messed things up so badly. People had not designed their systems to be resilient to variability. Supply chains will be very different moving forward if companies learn the lessons they need to learn.”
One lesson? Industrial engineers are critical to improving operations in both growth and challenging times. Industrial engineering is vital to ensure operations run smoothly, be it within an organization or across a global logistics system.
A passion for the profession
Noble is a champion for industrial engineering education and an ambassador for the field. Industrial engineers are everywhere, he’ll tell you, from hospitals and manufacturing plants to C-suites at Fortune 100 companies.
“Fundamentally, I would say everything has a process that needs to be first designed, then later improved,” he said. “And because of that, you can find industrial engineers working in retail, health care, governments, finance. The toolsets we use are applicable everywhere, but because we don’t have a ‘widget’ like other engineering disciplines it makes us harder to define.”
It also means the jobs are there. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts industrial engineering jobs growing by 14% over the coming decade, compared to the overall job growth of 7%. And because applications of industrial engineering are so vast, graduates can couple their interest in process optimization with the discipline of their choice.
At Mizzou, IMSE researchers are studying efficiencies around health care operations. They’re predicting demand for emerging technologies such as air taxis. They’re studying ways to optimize food supplies and coming up with innovative solutions to improve sustainability.
“When I talk to new students, I’m telling them about the breadth of what we do,” Noble said. “There are a lot of opportunities out there.”
At the same time, the IMSE curriculum is focused on the principles that govern effective operations. Like any science, industrial engineering has laws that must be followed.
In his classrooms, Noble emphasizes those fundamental rules to prepare the next generation of industrial engineers for global challenges.
“My educational goal is not so much conveying facts and optimization models, that I do that, but conveying a passion and inquisitiveness to solve complex, integrated problems,” he said. “And there are a few key things they need to remember. There are fundamental mathematical relationships that have to be applied to running any operation, and if you violate those, it will fail. We go into a lot of detail on many things, but they need to understand those basic principles and have a passion for it applying them.”
Finding his fit
Like many students who gravitate toward IMSE, Noble was doing the work of an industrial engineer before he even knew what to call it. As a kid growing up in Kirksville, Missouri, he analyzed the science behind his track & field events and Olympic style weightlifting and the system necessary to improve his performance as an athlete.
“I did a huge amount of research and had stacks of technical journals, which I still have,” he said. “When I got to college at the University of Oklahoma, I had some friends who were industrial engineers. I had never heard of industrial engineering — which is true of many high school students — but it resonated with me. I already had the mindset; I just had to find the right place to apply it.”
After graduation and with encouragement from his professors, Noble decided to pursue a master’s degree at Purdue University. There, he was asked to be an instructor for a large class, an experience that gave him a taste of academic life and teaching. He went on to earn a PhD from Purdue and had a short stint as a faculty member at the University of Washington in Seattle before coming home to Missouri.
At Mizzou Engineering, he’s been able to combine his love of teaching with his passion for helping industry.
“My work is always embedded in industry,” he said. “As an engineer, if I don’t have a connection with the user, I feel like I’m missing out on an opportunity to make an impact. Some look at research papers to find problems and determine what to do next, however, I have found that industry problems are much harder; they’re not as clean. To me, those are a lot of fun. I really enjoy looking at things over the course of time and being able to come up with solutions that address real problems.”
Noble founded the Mizzou research site of the Center for Excellence in Logistics and Distribution, or CELDi, a research and education consortium consisting of university partners and industry member organizations with support from the National Science Foundation.
Companies that become part of CELDi have opportunities to connect with researchers and be part of larger conversations around shared logistics and supply chain operations experiences.
“We have a symposium once a year where everyone comes together, and companies get to see state-of-the-art industry-based research,” Noble said. “It’s not a typical academic conference, even though there are academics there, but the focus is on industry. We’re trying to both enable company interaction and provide solutions to real problems. Companies find that extremely valuable.”
Noble views his job as chair as being a supporter and enabler to ensure student and faculty success.
“My goal is to enable people,” he said. “The chair’s position is a service opportunity to talk to people and find out what they need, then help them find the resources to be successful. That’s been fun. It has also been great to get to know many of our alumni and hear their career stories and how Mizzou IMSE helped them get started.”
It hasn’t been without challenge, as he assumed duties in March 2020 just before COVID sent instructors and students online. Despite less-than-ideal circumstances, though, Noble stressed that he’s proud of IMSE’s recent successes.
“Our faculty are doing high-quality scholarship,” he said. “They’re publishing in really good journals at a rate beyond what we have historically done. That’s definitely a point of department pride.”
In addition to supporting faculty research, Noble also hopes to foster greater collaboration between IMSE and other departments and colleges on campus.
Ultimately, he hopes those efforts will help raise the IMSE’s national visibility.
Noble also relies heavily on alumni to help meet that goal. IMSE has a particularly active alumni network that includes CEOs, presidents and other engineering leaders who help the department stay relevant in meeting industry and employer needs.
“We have a very engaged group of alumni who are very accomplished folks who want to help support the department, both financially and by engaging with students,” he said. “We meet with them regularly to do strategic planning, and we view them as a major part of our future as they invest back into the program and connect us with industry.”
IMSE already has the Robert C. and Pamela K. Bloss Faculty Endowment Fund to support new hires. Recently, the department established an IMSE Hall of Fame Faculty Endowment to support a professorship/chair position.
Bob Bloss ’77 is just one of many examples of IMSE graduates who have gone on to executive positions. He retired as senior vice president and chief human resource officer of Hallmark Cards.
“We have a lot of people who tend to move into leadership roles and are very successful,” Noble said. “We stay connected with them and provide opportunities for them to be engaged and to have an impact on our educational and research mission.”
Noble wants to see the department continue to graduate industrial engineers who are prepared for similar types of leadership roles — including being able to establish more resilient systems that can withstand the next global event.
A few years ago, IMSE teamed up with the Trulaske College of Business to offer both a graduate and an undergraduate certificate in supply chain management. It’s the only joint certificate of its kind that brings together both engineering and business curriculum to give students a broader understanding of how supply chains function effectively.
“That’s been a great natural collaboration for students who are interested in supply chains,” Noble said. “They get different perspectives, which makes it really unique. The program brings a lot of value to students.”
And bringing value to students is what has kept Noble coming back to Mizzou Engineering every day for 29 years and what now drives him as department chair.
“The opportunity to have an impact on students, that’s what motivates me,” he said. “IMSE at Mizzou has got a great foundation, and we’re on a positive trajectory. I’m excited for what we’ll see the department accomplish over the coming years. It’s my privilege to be part of enabling Mizzou IMSE to advance as best I can.”