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Compelled to be Green PUBLIC ACCESS

Interest in Sustainable Technology Remains a Personal Matter among Engineers. Rising Concern over Government Action Keeps the Issue in the Forefront.

Mechanical Engineering 132(02), 42-45 (Feb 01, 2010) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2010-Feb-6

Abstract

This article discusses comments and feedbacks received from the respondents of the ASME’s Sustainable Design Trend Watch Survey. The ASME/Autodesk study on sustainability was a comprehensive two-part survey gauging the opinions of members of ASME on matters of general sustainability and sustainable technologies. Part I included 10 aided questions, where respondents were asked to select from a list of answers. This survey was e-mailed to members of ASME. Part II included four aided questions and was mailed only to student members. Despite the challenging economy, respondents of the study indicate with a 6% increase over last year that they believe sustainable design will be further incorporated into their work in the year 2010. In addition to the survey questions, the respondents were given an opportunity to comment on the sustainability process in manufacturing, and many of those comments revealed a deep ambivalence toward the very idea of ‘sustainable manufacturing.’ A majority of engineers surveyed expected that no matter what, the companies they work for would have an increasingly large involvement with green or sustainable design specifications over the coming years.

Article

The ASME / Autodesk study on sustainability was a comprehensive two-part survey gauging the opinions of members of ASME on matters of general sustainability and sustainable technologies. Part I included 10 aided questions, where respondents were asked to select from a list of answers. This survey was e-mailed to members of ASME. Part II included four aided questions and was mailed only to student members. The study also sought general comments from the respondents, and most took advantage of the opportunity.

The matter of environmental sustainability continues to evoke sharply contrasting reactions among engineers. Adding in the wake of an unprecedented economic slowdown, it stands to reason a focus on fundamentals is natural. But as reported in the second annual ASME/Autodesk Sustainable Design Trend Watch Survey, mechanical engineers expect to see an increase in sustainable design work in 2010.

Despite the challenging economy, respondents of the study indicate with a 6 percent increase over last year that they believe sustainable design will be further incorporated into their work this year. For the second year in a row, more than two-thirds of participating MEs said they have worked on designing sustainable products, and more than half the ASME student members are involved with sustainable design in their studies.

The survey, which was underwritten by digital design tool developer Autodesk, was sent out to ASME members in late 2009. More than 3,000 working engineers and better than 1,300 engineering students responded. This isn’t a scientific survey (since the questionnaires had to be returned, there is a selection bias in the results), but it is the most detailed snapshot of the views and opinions of engineers on topics related to sustainability.

In addition to the survey questions, the respondents were given an opportunity to comment on the sustainability process in manufacturing, and many of those comments revealed a deep ambivalence toward the very idea of “sustainable manufacturing.” Some saw the concept as political rather than environmental.

“It is a buzzword,” one professional engineer wrote. “Businesses which claim to be ‘green’ often say this because of the political climate, which has become horrible for doing business and providing jobs for people.”

Another engineer wrote, “Our company has people focused on other issues that involve design of products and getting the products shipped out the door for revenue. There is very little emphasis on being green.”

But others saw great value in changing practices to use fewer non-renewable resources. “Engineers must work to reduce all emissions whether the government sets a lower threshold or not,” wrote one working engineer.

“Sustainable processes in manufacturing, in my view, is a no-brainer,” another engineer wrote. “I also believe that sound technical analysis will indicate it to be the lowest overall cost.”

In spite of the recession, most working engineers reported that their companies continued to be involved with sustainability or sustainable technologies. Indeed, more than 24 percent reported that their companies were extremely involved in sustainability and 43 percent were somewhat involved.

Of the 89 percent who said their companies had any level of involvement, just over seven in ten reported that their companies were creating designs that use less energy or produce fewer emissions. More than 70 percent also responded that their companies were producing designs specifically to comply with governmental standards and regulations.

About four in ten reported that the companies they worked for were involved in making designs that use non-toxic materials, or recycled materials, or a reduced amount of material in manufacturing.

Were these efforts worthwhile? Industry, one engineer wrote in the comments accompanying the survey, “needs a serious review of materials used in manufacturing and manufacturing processes to determine when and if more sustainable practices produce better products, less waste, better returns, and long-term value for the company.”

Another engineer concurred: “The only reasons for manufacturers to adopt sustainable practices,” he wrote, “is if the practices will allow for the cheaper manufacturing of products or improve the function of the product.”

Figure 1 Which one of these factors is most likely to influence your organization's use of green design practices and procedures? Which are the second and third most likely?

Grahic Jump LocationFigure 1 Which one of these factors is most likely to influence your organization's use of green design practices and procedures? Which are the second and third most likely?

A great majority of engineers surveyed expected that no matter what, the companies they work for would have an increasingly large involvement with green or sustainable design specifications over the next year. Indeed, the 63 percent who saw an increase (versus fewer than 2 percent who forecast a decrease) was 6 percentage points higher than the level reported last year. Clearly, then, sustainability was going to be an ongoing concern.

Figure 2 How does your organization balance priorities that may impact the use of sustainable methods?

Grahic Jump LocationFigure 2 How does your organization balance priorities that may impact the use of sustainable methods?

The respondents were asked about the decision-making process at their companies: How does the company balance priorities that could impact the use of sustainable methods? On one end of the scale, about 15 percent of the engineers responding said their companies do not invest in sustainable technologies at all. Another 9 percent said their companies made an effort only in certain flagship products.

But others reported a much more positive view of sustainability in the design process. More than 19 percent claimed that their companies will spend extra to incorporate sustainable technologies in most new products.

A more middle-ground approach was seen by the majority of respondents, however. Nearly 24 percent said their companies would invest in sustainable technologies if doing so wouldn’t affect throughput or cost, 27 percent said the investment would have to improve throughput and cost before it would be made in existing products, and 34 percent reported that sustainable practices are considered on new products only if they save money.

One engineer commented that he’d like to see “more clients willing to pay higher prices for products that make use of sustainable practices,” adding, “There is insufficient support for such in industry.”

Another engineer wrote, “Companies need to create a work environment that creates incentives for products to be designed with sustainable practices in mind.”

And another engineer felt that lack of information might be impeding efforts for incorporating more sustainable designs. “There should be ready access to the energy costs and relative ‘greenness’ of materials. [That] would facilitate companies to make meaningful ‘greenness’ calculations along with ROI calculations for new products and processes,” he wrote.

Nearly 42 percent said that the top factor that influenced their companies’ use of green practices was regulatory requirements. Energy costs, client demand, or market forces were also found to be key drivers.

And these non-regulatory factors led increasingly to real work for the engineers in the survey. The portion of respondents who reported working on projects with green or sustainable design elements beyond what was mandated by regulations increased to 66 percent, from 62 percent in the last survey.

Shifting the focus to the engineers themselves revealed a mismatch between what they were doing and what they thought was important. A majority reported working on projects in the last year that used sustainable technology to comply with a regulation or standard. But only 23 percent thought that designs that met such standards were one of the two most important sustainable technologies. That jibes with the comments, many of which railed against intrusive government regulation.

The sustainability factor that was closest to the hearts of the surveyed engineers was energy use. Some 64 percent of working engineers thought design that uses less energy was one of the top two most important sustainable technologies, and an almost identical number had worked on such projects last year. The number who identified using renewable or recyclable material as important was nearly the same as the number who worked on that sort of design problem—both around a quarter of respondents.

Interestingly, some 27 percent of working engineers saw manufacturing processes that use less energy or natural resources as one of the two most important sustainable technologies. But only 21 percent had worked on that technology in the last year, which suggests that this was an area that engineers could do more in.

Figure 3 Over the past year, approximately what portion of all your projects included specifications that were based on sustainable and/or green design principles beyond those mandated by regulation?

Grahic Jump LocationFigure 3 Over the past year, approximately what portion of all your projects included specifications that were based on sustainable and/or green design principles beyond those mandated by regulation?

But sustainability may be an area in which engineers are beginning to feel apathetic. Unlike last year, when 36 percent of working engineers reported feeling extremely interested in these issues, only 29 percent of this year's respondents felt the same way.

Many commented that the attention on environmental issues, especially climate change, was a case of hype overwhelming solid business sense.

One surveyed engineer commented, “I define all efforts to reduce scrap and labor, and improve efficiency and throughput as sustainable practices. Beyond that,” he continued, “it is a waste of money and resources. And expending resources to reduce CO2 is a complete waste.”

“Conservation of resources and protection of the environment are obviously worthwhile goals,” another engineer wrote, “but American manufacturers also need to compete on a level playing field.”

But other engineers wrote that environmental values were crucial. Wrote one, “As engineers we have to ethically uphold the safety of mankind. Therefore to ignore sustainability is to ignore the long-term future of man.”

Students also were surveyed on their views. More students than working engineers reported being interested in environmental issues and causes, with 89 percent responding that they were somewhat or extremely interested.

The top priorities for the students also showed some subtle differences from those of the working engineers surveyed. While large majorities of both groups selected energy or emissions reduction among the top two concerns, far fewer students considered meeting regulations a priority. Instead, 43 percent identified manufacturing processes that use less energy or resources as a priority, and another 21 percent chose reduction in material waste. (The percentage that identified waste reduction as a top sustainability priority increased by 50 percent since last year.) No other category received as much as 15 percent.

In their comments, the students were much more likely to embrace the idea of sustainability and a responsibility to the environment than were their elders.

“Sustainable processes are a necessary goal in manufacturing, and more than a goal it should be an area of perpetual improvement,” one student wrote. “It will almost always be possible to reduce waste or pollution involved in any process, to the long-run benefit of all.”

Another student agreed. “The rate at which consumer products are manufactured, purchased, and disposed requires that a new manufacturing strategy be employed,” he wrote. “Resource-laden manufacturing processes should only be implemented when the product is set to be in use for some extended period of time, maybe 20 to 50 years.”

Figure 4 To what extent do you agree that the people you work/study with are increasingly interested in sustainable and/or green design principles in mechanical systems?

Grahic Jump LocationFigure 4 To what extent do you agree that the people you work/study with are increasingly interested in sustainable and/or green design principles in mechanical systems?

And this summed up the view of many: “Change is not easy. It's not cheap,” one student wrote. “Making the plan-et more sustainable will not come in the form of a magic cure-all solution. We have dug ourselves in a pretty deep hole as a result of our ignorance and lack of proper research and development. It will take hard work, dedication, and a good amount of time to transform the planet.”

It's hard to tell whether the contrasting reactions over green issues among working engineers is a real effect created by the deep recession, or whether the differences are due to natural, random noise in the data. But one trend has remained the same: student engineers have shown much greater regard for issues of sustainability and environmental stewardship than have their working elders. Whether that's because of a generational shift in attitudes will be some-thing to watch as these younger engineers enter the workforce.

For more of what they said, visit MEMAGAZINE.ORG

Copyright © 2010 by ASME
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