Volume 4 No.1, Winter 2000

ISSN# 1523-9926


Information Technology Abilities for Engineering

Professionals at Steelcase Corporation


Julia Morse
The Peter Kiewit Institute of Information Science, Technology and Engineering
Industrial Systems Technology Department
College of Engineering and Technology
University of Nebraska-Lincoln



 Finding that the functional and managerial requirements of engineering information systems are best understood by engineering professionals, Steelcase Corporation partnered with The Peter Kiewit Institute of Information Science, Technology and Engineering at the University of Nebraska.  The goal of the partnership was to develop a university curriculum which better prepares engineering and technology graduates with the appropriate information technology (IT) abilities to apply, develop, and manage their own systems. 

The development and flow of engineering information was followed through the design-to-delivery processes at Steelcase.  To determine what information technologies were currently being applied in support of engineering functions, interviews were conducted with over thirty engineers, managers, team leaders and members, technicians, and members of support functions at design facilities and at five manufacturing plants.  Discussion covered a range of IT applications, including office applications, engineering tools, team project management and communication applications, NC and automation control, product tracking, and project data sharing across functional boundaries.  Opportunities for improvements through better IT usage were also suggested.                                                                                               

 This paper summarizes the IT applications cited, as well as the broader skills and abilities suggested for the engineers and technicians who work with computer systems.  IT applications for design-area professionals are distinguished from those applied by manufacturing engineering.  A model for engineering support systems professionals is also discussed.


Through a sale of furniture to equip the new Peter Kiewit Institute of Information, Science, Technology and Engineering facilities, Steelcase became aware of the Institute’s mission of collaboration between the academic units of information science and engineering, as well as with industry partners.  Steelcase shared an interest in developing curriculum or special-emphasis programs that would combine appropriate information technology preparation with engineering and technology curriculum and offered to partner in its development. 

Tackling the curriculum question, it was first necessary to define what combination of engineering and IT knowledge is needed for four-year graduates.  What foundational IT skills and application knowledge would be needed, and at what level of detail? 

Steelcase offered to share a practitioner’s viewpoint of IT application issues.  The author was invited to the Grand Rapids-area Steelcase facilities to investigate current IT applications and opportunities for engineering professionals in the manufacturing enterprise.  James Allan, then Manager in Product Development and Launch, arranged and assisted in the interviews. 



Interviews with Steelcase professionals covered the flow of engineering information through the design-to-delivery process, emphasizing the areas of product development, manufacturing engineering and engineering support functions (Table 1).  Over thirty engineers, managers, team leaders and members, technicians, and members of support functions discussed the engineering information involved in their functional areas, information technologies currently being applied, and opportunities for improvements in IT usage.  Site visits included the design facilities and five manufacturing plants. 

Interviewees were asked what foundational IT skills were needed for engineering practitioners in their functional areas.  Discussion covered a range of IT applications, including office applications, engineering tools, team project management and communication applications, NC and automation control, product tracking, and project data sharing across functional boundaries. 

This paper summarizes the responses of Steelcase professionals, focusing on three major categories of engineering effort:

·        Product Development

·        Manufacturing Engineering

·        Engineering Systems Support

Functional Areas Interviewed

  • Product Development Team Members and Leaders
  • Manufacturing Engineering
  • Industrial Engineering
  • Advanced Engineering Applications
  • Manufacturing Modeling and Simulation
  • Model Shop
  • Rapid Tooling
  • Testing Laboratories
  • Engineering Illustration
  • Engineering (Computer) Systems Support
  • Corporate Quality
  • Production and Inventory Control
  • Distribution
  • Technical Training and Development

Table 1.  Functional Areas Interviewed Concerning IT Usage and Opportunities.



A summary of the key IT competencies cited by Steelcase professionals, provided in Table 2, reveals a core skill set common to most engineering practitioners, plus a divergence of skill requirements between the functional areas of Product Development, Manufacturing Engineering, and Engineering Systems Support.

Common IT Toolset Across Engineering Functions

Discussion with Steelcase professionals revealed a common toolset for engineering practitioners, regardless of their functional areas.   

General Office Applications 

 The engineering professionals interviewed did not forget to emphasize the importance of simple office applications in day-to-day performance of engineering tasks.  E-mail was cited as a requisite means of communication, whether for project team communication, work requisitions, or less formal questions and comments among peers.  Other requisite office application experience included word processing and the use of web tools on Intranet for information sharing. 

Application of Appropriate Tools  

Engineering professionals must be able to apply software tools to fulfill their own particular job tasks. 

Key IT Competencies For Engineering Professionals

Suggested by Steelcase Practitioners 

All Engineering Professionals

  • E-mail (appropriate usage, spelling, etiquette)
  • Word processing
  • Electronic information sharing (web tools/Intranet information sharing)
  • Spreadsheets
    • Organization of information into tables, matrices
    • Repetitive calculations and analysis
    • Graphs and other communication of data
  • Database usage (basic understanding of what a database is and how others may be using the same information in other ways)
  • CAD usage (level and complexity of application depends upon the job function)
  • Simulation as a specialty (not required of all engineers)


Product Development Engineering

  • CAD using constraint-based modeling
  • Project management tools (e.g. Microsoft Project)


Manufacturing Engineering

  • Database retrieval and analysis of data; integration of data from various sources
  • Visual Basic for custom application development and data integration
  • 2-D CAD for typical manufacturing layout work; constraint-based modeling for tool designers and CNC part programmers


Engineering Systems Support (Preferred Skills)

  • Operating systems (Windows, DOS required)
  • Programming in C, C++ (also Java, Pascal)
  • Database programming, SQL
  • CNC programming, DNC, postprocessors
  • Serial communication, digital I/O, multitasking
  • Barcode technology (scanners and printers, programming and interfacing)


Table 2.  Summary of Key IT Competencies Suggested by Steelcase Practitioners

Extensive application of spreadsheets is emphasized throughout all engineering areas.  In addition to the use of spreadsheets for repetitive calculations and analyses, engineers emphasized the use of spreadsheet charts and the simple organization of information into matrices as valuable communication and reporting tools.

Nearly all-engineering professionals are working with databases in some way and benefited from at least a basic understanding of database concepts, e.g. what a database is and how others might use the information. 

Some CAD (computer-aided design) was necessary to both engineering functions, but at very different levels of complexity and application, depending on the job function.

Simulation applications differ greatly between product development and manufacturing engineering.  Product development simulations often take the form of product test simulations or manufacturability (process) simulations, and manufacturing-related simulations focus on the design and improvement of plant-floor activities.  However, issues in the application and management of simulation were strikingly similar between functions.  Both functions emphasized the various levels of complexity possible in model analysis and the importance of balancing the level of analysis attempted with the level of detail required.  Both functions noted the relatively large amount of time that must be invested in a high-end simulation model, as well as the extent of specialized training and experience required by the engineer performing the simulation.

Simulation is an area of specialty, not a general requirement of all engineers.  Engineering professionals should, however, be able to communicate their design specifications and simulation model requirements to a simulation specialist.  There are also simpler modeling and analysis tools that can often yield adequate information or help determine if a more complex simulation is warranted.  These tools are much more accessible to the engineer in terms of training requirements and time required to develop the analysis model. 

Applications Emphasized for Product Development Engineering

Product Development had a much-greater emphasis on CAD and constraint-based modeling than did the Manufacturing Engineering functions.  At one time mechanical designers performed the bulk of CAD.  Now constraint-based modeling is becoming a requirement of the engineering design process, performed by engineers.

Part specifications must also be entered into the engineering product definition database.  It is helpful for engineers to understand the concept of databases, especially about how the information might be used by others. 

A common thread through comments from product development professionals was the sharing of project information, both for the use of team members, as well as for documentation purposes.  Some innovative team members have developed Intranet-based tools for the sharing of team documents.  General project management software tools were more often cited by product development professionals than by manufacturing.

Applications Emphasized in Manufacturing Engineering 

A recurring theme among manufacturing engineers was the integration of data from various sources.  Manufacturing engineering professionals placed a greater emphasis on the development of database retrieval and analysis methods than their product development colleagues.  Manufacturing professionals must import and integrate data from various sources.  They may even implement data collection applications at the plant floor. 

Visual Basic was also specified by manufacturing engineering functions as useful for the development of specific custom applications.  For example, Visual Basic was used for in-house development of a costing program that draws from database information.  It was also cited as a tool useful in automating the integration or keying-in of other data.   

Although the manufacturing areas had not applied web-based information sharing to the extent that product development teams had, one area was experimenting with web-based technology as an avenue for communication of information to and from manufacturing floor operations. 

Although the constraint-based modeling platform is the official platform for part model information at Steelcase, AutoCAD is still the preferred platform for simple plant layout work and other manufacturing design work that does not require integration with part model information or the complexity of the three-dimensional constraint-based modeling system.  (The constraint-based modeling platform is used by tool designers and CNC part programmers, whose job functions are separate from the general manufacturing engineering function described here.) 

Applications for Engineering Systems Support

For the support of engineering computer systems such as CAD systems, part and manufacturing information databases, NC programming and CAM-system support for manufacturing, and some plant floor data collection interfaces, Steelcase has preferred to “grow” systems support professionals from manufacturing and engineering. 

Table 3 provides an example of one type of engineering systems support position.  The lower level of required programming skills allows professionals with engineering experience and some programming experience to move into the position and then learn additional programming and technical skills with the job.  It seems that it is easier for a person with experience in the manufacturing realm to increase programming skills than it is for someone in information technology to pick up on the special needs of the engineering environment for manufacturing.  Examples of special needs for engineering systems support include:

  Opening in Engineering Systems

Description of Opening

The Engineering Systems Team at Steelcase has an immediate opening for someone to support CAM systems such as NC programming systems, post processors, DNC, cell controllers, Trimscan, and other manufacturing automation systems.  Support would include resolving problems with current systems, integrating various systems together, and developing new solutions as needed.  A team player interested in working in both office and shop floor environments is desired.

General Experience

The ideal candidate should have experience in applying PC based computing technology to the manufacturing process, especially in the areas of CNC machining, process automation, barcode data collection, and integration with client-server business systems.

Required Skills

  • Detailed knowledge and experience in DOS and Windows NT operating systems.

  • Detailed knowledge and experience programming in ANSI C.

  • Ability to work in a team environment.

  • Ability to accomplish assignments independently.

  • Ability to work in the manufacturing environment (i.e. shop floor).

  • Excellent communications skills.

  • Good analytical and problem solving skills.

Preferred Skills

  • Working knowledge of C++, Pascal, Java, SQL, and databases (Oracle).

  • Working knowledge of NC programming, NC programming systems, and DNC.

  • Working knowledge of serial communications, digital I/O, and multitasking.

  • Working knowledge of barcode technology including scanners, printers, programming and interfacing.

  • Working knowledge of UNIX and Win95 operating systems.

Table 3.  Position Description for Engineering Systems Support

Table 4 provides a more general picture of the difference between engineering support systems and traditional IT and Information Systems (IS) professionals.   IT and IS professionals tend to come from an environment of larger, more global systems applications. A separate engineering systems support group versed in the needs of engineering for manufacturing can be more responsive to the needs of its local customer.

Engineering System
Support Environment  

Traditional IT/ Information Systems
Support Environment

  • Systems and applications are more localized
  • Systems are typically customized for the area of use
  • Systems can be changed quickly without thorough testing
  • Manufacturing applications may affect production and may require immediate response
  • Systems spread across the enterprise, affect all users

  • Systems must conform to global standards (e.g., operating system, passwords, procedures)

  • Systems must be thoroughly tested before implementation; Slower response time

  Table 4.  Differences Between Engineering Systems Support And Traditional IT/Information Systems Approaches



When discussing areas for continued improvement in the use of information technology systems, comments from Steelcase professionals in various functions in the organization centered on two recurring themes:  (1) sharing of data across organizational boundaries and (2) communication of “knowledge” rather than just data.

  Sharing of Data Across Organizational Boundaries 

Data is being collected by many functions in the manufacturing enterprise.  There is increasing opportunity to know that it is being collected, to be able to access it, import it, and possibly convert it into a format usable for your needs.

In the manufacturing community in general, the lack of integration between enterprise-wide business systems and engineering systems has been a barrier.  With improved standards for data exchange, this process has become easier, but initiative is still required on the part of the engineer to link into the information useful to a particular application.  For the manufacturing plant floor, there is often useful data being collected or tracked that is not yet immediately available to the plant floor or manufacturing improvement efforts—or at least not in a format that is immediately usable.

Another barrier to this is the fact that data is often collected with a lack of understanding of or attention to the data needs of other functions.  For example, the product development engineer entering product definition data into a database may need to have an idea of how manufacturing will use that information in order for it to be recorded in a form most immediately usable to manufacturing.


The Communication of Knowledge 

Many Steelcase professionals emphasized the difference between information and knowledge.  Data must be presented to its audience in a usable form, a form that communicates knowledge along with it.   For example, for manufacturing information to provide knowledge to managers, it must be provided in a format that summarizes key parameters of interest.  Information presented to the plant floor must be presented in a way that is easily accessible and useful to the plant floor.   These reports may be based on the same or similar data set, but they should be reported in various ways for them to adequately communicate knowledge to the particular audience.

 Generally in manufacturing, we have an opportunity to collect enormous amounts of data (or enormous amounts of data are already being collected for us), but we are still catching up on efficient ways to generate and present reports.  Engineers and managers are still pulling, sometimes importing, and querying the data we desire and manipulating it to get the information we want, and sometimes further manipulating it to get it in a form that effectively communicates this knowledge to others—and in a way in which this knowledge is known to be available.

 Dave Huisken in Technical Publications noted that knowledge is audience-specific, disseminated, for example, for the world of the engineer versus the world of the industrial designer, versus the world of the legal professionals.  While Huisken’s department takes on the role of mediator of knowledge between engineering and non-engineering functions, he notes that engineers should realize that their primary output is knowledge and that engineers should be able to disseminate information in a meaningful way.



While Steelcase professionals emphasized importance of particularly prevalent application tools, they noted that it is important to teach not what will become obsolete, but a broader vision of the technologies available and the ability to adapt and apply available technologies to fit the need.

For general engineering functions, spreadsheets and databases seem to be foundational productivity tools, more productive in the engineering office environment than the higher-level programming tools that are so often the greater focus in engineering and technology curricula.  Engineers are expected to use rigorous spreadsheet application, including analysis and charting capabilities, import and export of data, and the use of macros and other customization tools to streamline custom applications for other users.   

CAD preparation should be consistent with the responsibilities of the particular engineering function or field.  But perhaps just as important as CAD skills is the opportunity to integrate design data with the geometric model in database format.   Engineering practitioners need to be versed in the basics of databases and how the database data becomes or can become integrated into the flow of engineering information through the manufacturing system and beyond.  Nearly all Steelcase engineering practitioners were using databases in some form, with many importing, exporting, querying, analyzing, and creating interfaces according to the needs of their job.  Yet coverage of databases seems to be one of the most overlooked tools in engineering curricula. 

Engineers should be able to retrieve product and process knowledge from existing databases and communicate that knowledge in a meaningful way.  This second step of communication requires ability to apply technologies compatible with Internet/Intranet communication.

 In general, engineers should be prepared to proactively develop their own applications whether they are spreadsheet applications, database applications, Visual Basic interfaces, or web pages.  Technical writing courses and possibly student project courses should include emphasis in professional use of e-mail communication.  (As one Steelcase engineer noted, “This stuff gets forwarded everywhere.”)

Many engineering curricula emphasize the use of computer simulation in upper-level analysis and design courses.  Faculty and students should not underestimate the experiential learning curve and time required for the creation of adequate models for high-end simulations such as finite element analysis (FEA) or plant-floor simulation packages (e.g. ProModel).  Since such high-end simulation is an area of expertise, it is more important for all engineers first to understand the management issues surrounding the use of simulation and model analysis tools.  Engineering practitioners need to understand the availability of simulation, but also the different levels of model analysis available, the information that can be provided, and the trade-off between the rigor of the results and the resources invested in the analysis.

Steelcase’s Engineering Systems Support group demonstrates the value in having engineers versed in the product-manufacturing environment capable of implementing system integration and support.  Engineers who have some experience in higher-level programming and integration may have the opportunity to grow into such positions.  Further investigation into this possible career path is required before recommending a curriculum that balances the relative rigor in information systems integration with preparation in engineering for the design and manufacturing environment.

The experience shared by Steelcase engineering professionals indicates that there is great opportunity for engineering and technology graduates who are proactive in leveraging and growing with available technologies to streamline the creation and communication of engineering knowledge.  Engineering practitioners know the products and processes being managed by engineering information systems and need to be integration-minded, not only in terms of the IT technology being applied, but in the sharing of engineering knowledge through the design-to-ship process and beyond.


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