Engineering a better balance

NIU professor aims to bring more women into engineering profession

Lacey LaBelle, Shanthi Muthuswamy, Swati Goyal and Andrea Briggs

Lacey LaBelle, Shanthi Muthuswamy, Swati Goyal and Andrea Briggs

Across the country, women make up 18 percent of the population of engineers in student programs.

One NIU professor is determined to change those numbers.

Shanthi Muthuswamy, an assistant professor in the Department of Technology in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, teaches courses in manufacturing engineering technology and industrial management technology.

Her research is in the area of process optimization – how businesses can make their processes flow better. Along with her graduate students, she collaborated with several local industries to improve their process flow, focusing on assembly line balancing, layout optimization, time study and lean methodologies.

“One of my academic goals was to develop an all-women research group to encourage women to pursue their Master’s in the field of engineering and technology,” Muthuswamy said. “With my funded research from companies such as Dukane and Caterpillar, I supported six brilliant, young women who have pursued their M.S. in industrial and systems engineering and in industrial management.”

Through Muthuswamy’s connections and research, the six students were able to get real field work and apply the tools learned at CEET to real world situations at Dukane Corp. The corporation is known for its audio-visual products, welding machines and aviation and marine products.

Muthuswamy’s research group focused on the assembly area of the welding machines.

Dukane logoDukane’s goal was to improve work flows by improving layout, implementing lean methodologies and by standardizing work procedures. The company used the engineering methodologies created by the students to design a new and improved layout which would remove the valueless “add muda” – waste, or inconsistences, in the process flow.

“I was fortunate enough to earn the opportunity of working as a research assistant at Dukane. It allowed me to gain some practical knowledge related to my field of study and earn some real time work experience as well,” said Mythri Catari, one of the students in the program. “It is very essential for every student to work in a real-time environment while at school and get some hands-on experience of the theoretical knowledge that he or she earns from studying. I strongly believe that it enhances the perception for learning and also helps understanding concepts in the right way.”

The program itself is not yet a recognized internship/assistant program through the university, but rather is run through the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology as a research assistant program. The students involved are almost primarily women and go to school at the same time, working around 20 hours a week in the company.

“Being a woman in the technology field adds an extra amount of difficulty when trying to get an internship which is why being an RA (research assistant) and being able to prove yourself in industry is so important,” said Andrea Briggs, one of the members of the Dukane Group who has since accepted a full-time position at the company. “An RA is like getting an internship that not only is in your field, but also comes with plenty of people who can help you every step of the way.”

Shanthi Muthuswamy

Shanthi Muthuswamy

The position itself is mainly to expand the exposure of women engineers in order to potentially increase the amount of women in engineering positions. However, the program is not exclusive to people who have had a background in engineering.

“I come from a non-engineering background; therefore, to study and work as an industrial engineer definitely seemed very difficult at start. However, with the real world examples and guidance provided by my professors, made the process easy for me,” said Swati Goyal, another member of the RA team. “I got a chance to implement my learning through the research assistant position at Dukane, where I developed standard work manuals, helped the company to cross train their assemblers and paved the way for them to duplicate their facilities around the globe.”

Students interested in potentially joining the research assistant program, whether male or female, can visit Muthuswamy’s office in Still Hall 206, call (815) 753-4155 or email smuthuswamy@niu.edu to discuss further details with her.

“I really hope that this becomes a full-time program at the college, because we are trying to do so many helpful things for these students,” Muthuswamy said, “getting them involved in positions in companies that can give them real-world experience and possibly get them jobs.”

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