A new-style engineer catches industry's fancy

Stephen Downes rises from beneath an axial lead component inserter like a mechanic emerging from under the hood of a car. Noisy pieces of sophisticated hardware surround him inside Digital Equipment Company's keyboard manufacturing plant. He raises his voice slightly to be heard over the symphony of synthesized sound.

''Someone has to make sense of all this hardware - where to position it, how to make it work efficiently,'' he says, tracing a finger over hair-thin leads on a circuit board. ''And that someone is me.''

Mr. Downes is a manufacturing engineer - the newest grad in town that all the corporate recruiters are making eyes at. Like atomic engineers, computer specialists, and petroleum engineers before them, manufacturing engineers are suddenly in hot demand - and colleges and universities are scrambling to increase their supply of them.

The goal of the manufacturing engineer is this: squeeze the last ounce of productivity out of the computers, robots, and automatic guided vehicles that make up today's automated factories. Many corporations believe the largest productivity gains are still to be had on the shop floor - in manufacturing facilities in general, and in new, automated factories in particular.

That's where the manufacturing engineer comes in, linking an invention in its conceptual stage to a mass-produced product in finished form. Like industrial engineers, they must know the mathematical processes, and like the mechanical engineer they must know about production processes. But unlike either one, they must also compete on a managerial level with lawyers and MBAs.

''The growth of manufacturing engineering is of absolutely vital importance to our economy,'' says Peter Dewhurst, assistant director of the manufacturing engineering program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ''If you look at the wealth produced in this country, (much) of it comes from manufacturing - we need to concentrate our efforts there.''

Not satisfied that traditional engineering disciplines are adequately supplying the types of graduates industry needs, colleges and universities are gearing up with a wide array of new manufacturing engineer degree progams:

* Cornell University's new program in manufacturing engineering and productivity will begin in earnest this fall with 35 master's-level students.

* Notre Dame is also starting a manufacturing engineering degree program in the fall, replacing its program in industrial engineering. Several other schools , including Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and Stanford University's School of Engineering will also initiate programs this year.

* Another half-dozen institutions, including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute , the University of Wisconsin, and Purdue University, have had manufacturing engineering programs for several years, but there, too, existing programs are expanding, according to officials at the schools.

Colleges and universities are finding it easier to answer private-sector pleas for more manufacturing engineers because industry has proved willing to invest in such training programs. IBM has mobilized national interest in manufacturing engineering with a recent grant of $50 million to be divided among five schools which have, or are starting, manufacturing engineering programs. Other corporations have donated money as well: Emerson Electric, for example, contributed $1.3 million to the program at Cornell.

While most observers acknowledge industry's urgent need for manufacturing engineers, not everyone is satisfied with higher education's response to the challenge to turn out more of them. Nelson Rogers, associate director of industrial engineering at Georgia Tech, believes that the major difference between the old industrial engineering programs and the new manufacturing engineering programs at some schools is the name.

He also questions the motivation of some schools in starting manufacturing engineering programs. ''Universities know they have to move to manufacturing engineering if they are going to get any support from private industry, because that's where the research dollars are coming from,'' he says.

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