Feb 14, 2012

Sustainable Engineering | Every Engineer Can Be a Sustainability Engineer | Sustainable Plant

By Paul Studebaker, Editor-in-Chief January 13, 2012

A childhood buddy I hadn’t seen in about 40 years recently dug me up, probably for old times’ sake but ostensibly to see if I might offer advice on how to extend die life in his factory. His company has plants all over the world, producing millions of parts for, among other things, medical devices, cell phones and tablet computers. We met for lunch, caught up on our lives and talked about tool materials.

My friend’s gotten pretty high up in his company, so I asked him what they were doing about sustainability. He gave me a blank look so I added, “You know – energy efficiency, water, working conditions…?” He said, “We don’t pay much attention to that stuff. We’re too busy making good products at the lowest possible cost.”

The week before, I met a brilliant energy metering and management entrepreneur with an innovative low-cost system he’s eager to install for free if you’ll pay him out of the guaranteed energy savings. He asked, “Why does it take at least six months for a manufacturing plant to approve a project that is guaranteed to save them many thousands of dollars in less than a year?”

We talked about the typical plant decision process and project prioritization, and how a proposal like his could end up on the desk of an engineer or maintenance supervisor with far too many more urgent concerns, like productivity and breakdowns, that could slow him down even if he was very interested in what he might see as a non-essential project that’s more work than its worth.

A few days ago, the Sustainability Track coordinator for a materials engineering conference asked me about the role of materials engineers in sustainability. I regretfully admitted that while many projects to improve industrial sustainability rely on, affect or could be improved by material properties, I’ve yet to see any direct involvement outside universities, labs and a few product development departments.

In the last quarter of 2011, I attended four conferences and user group events for engineers. Each had at least one session with “sustainability” in the title, and none I attended had more than a dozen people in the audience.

Most engineers, technicians and production personnel see sustainability as a buzzword – not their problem, not their concern. Put your priorities in terms that fit into their job description and they’ll be glad to help, but don’t expect them to embrace what they see as the latest frothy marketing craze.

It’s a familiar mindset. As many of you know, I’m an engineer by training and definitely by temperament, formerly editor in chief of our industrial maintenance and asset management magazine, Plant Services, and before that our process automation title, Control. When my publishing company, which specializes in print and digital resources for industrial technologists, proposed offering our Sustainable Plant Today e-newsletter and SustainablePlant.com web site, I thought it was redundant – we already cover energy efficiency, water conservation, safety, pollution control, etc. for industrial facilities in our existing offerings.

But once I realized how interesting and rewarding it is to understand engineering problems not only to accomplish them well and at the lowest possible cost, but to make an industrial facility and the world a little cleaner, safer and more secure, I asked for the lead role.

Many of the engineers and technicians I know in industry are frustrated by the short-sightedness of their daily activities. Their focus is on solving urgent problems and meeting today’s production bogey. The only projects they can get approved are the ones with the shortest ROI.

Sustainability proponents should help engineers and technicians understand that in companies where sustainability isn’t just a buzzword, it’s a driving force for better technology. Projects that contribute to corporate sustainability goals are given leeway on payback, so they have more room to do them right. Sustainability provides a fresh perspective – its priorities are similar, but different from their usual work, and give them opportunities to exercise their latent talents and greatest ingenuity.

Engineers should know that instead of just cutting cost and being restricted to the projects with the quickest return, you can have a reason to look at and optimize lifecycle costs. Instead of always buying the cheapest stuff, you can specify the best stuff. Instead of being a slave to the balance sheet, you can help build something that makes your children proud.

Every engineer can – and should – be a sustainability engineer.

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