Unleashing the Next Wave of Engineering Innovation

Rocky Mountain Institute

Unleashing the Next Wave of Engineering Innovation

There’s a joke e-mail that seems to circulate on the Web every eight months or so.

It includes images of outrageous design blunders, like a surveillance camera mounted behind and pointing at the back of the monitor it feeds. Or there’s a picture of a faucet that’s about six inches away from the sink into which the water should fall. There’s another of a man using an automatic teller machine that’s about nine feet above the ground.

All good for a laugh, but the truth is, bad design is more common than most of us realize. Bad engineering design, specifically, is simply wasteful. Poorly designed processes and systems gobble up energy and resources as if they were free or nearly free, and the inefficiency is generally invisible to most observers, including consumers who have to pay for the energy and resources.

Throughout the Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI) 27-year existence, its staff has sought to influence the design, building, and retrofitting of power and industrial plants, commercial and residential buildings, and vehicles and transportation systems early in the development process so they’re designed correctly upfront, eliminating costly late redesigns and inefficient outcomes.

One of the basic challenges our practioners run into, year after year, is that the people creating inefficient processes and systems are simply unaware they are doing so, and they don’t know how to do things differently. The reasons are many and complex, but often boil down to a few familiar parameters: assumed cost (e.g., capital resources, risk, reward, etc.), time (e.g., regulatory requirements, demand, etc.), tradition (e.g., what has worked before), and skills.

“Engineering schools don’t specifically teach bad engineering design,” notes RMI’s Alok Pradhan, “It’s just that current engineering practice is very siloed and there’s a lack of integration and whole-system consideration. Designs are typically optimized for the wrong parameters. That is, they will optimize the component individually, and the pieces -- when they fit together -- don’t work that great as a system.”

Pradhan is the project manager for 10xE, which is short for Factor Ten Engineering. Several years ago, RMI kicked off this modest project to address these problems in engineering. This RMI initiative is fairly straightforward: The goal is to create a series of teaching tools that will help engineers design the things they design using radically less energy and resources than they otherwise would have, without compromising performance. These teaching materials -- revolving around a casebook of extremely efficient projects and systems -- will be used to teach efficiency concepts and design to both engineering students and practitioners.

10xE has its genesis in the Factor Four notion put forth by Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins in their 1995 report to the Club of Rome, “Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use.” In the report, the authors argue that energy and resources can be used much more efficiently, to the tune of at least four times as efficient. “Factor Ten represents Amory Lovins’s belief that we can do even better,” notes Alok. “It might not necessarily be 10 times the efficiency. It might be eight times or six times, but the basic premise of this project is to see, when these principles are applied, what’s possible.”

This year, the effort has gained some financial support and is picking up momentum.

“It’s something we’ve been thinking about for a long time at RMI, but now, with Alok, we have a full-time project manager, a little seed money, and the momentum to move forward,” notes Lionel Bony, who heads the Office of the Chief Scientist at RMI. “We are going from concept phase to implementation, which is very exciting.”

A Different Kind of Engineering Ideal

The main focus of the 10xE project is the casebook. In it, RMI and the Institute’s research partners, including university engineering schools, engineering firms, and their customers, are assembling several dozen case studies in which regular, dis-integrated engineering will be compared with highly efficient engineering design, laid out on facing pages so the reader can easily compare them and understand why the superefficient design typically costs less to build.

The cases themselves will span the range of engineering disciplines and main applications. More importantly, they’ll be chosen to illustrate and develop practical principles of design integration to achieve big energy and resource savings more cheaply.

“We do want to make these cases broad so they cover multiple disciplines, and, more importantly, demonstrate the whole-system considerations that have gone into the design,” Alok notes.

A case study of a data center that is currently being developed is a good example of the types of projects the book will include, he says. Researchers will compare the superefficient data center design with a normal one.

“In that particular data center they managed to eliminate chillers, which is a huge energy savings; they made the computer code more efficient so the center didn’t actually have to do as much computing; they removed extra load and unnecessary servers; they changed some of the electrical hardware to make the servers ‘best in class’; and they retrofitted the buildings,” Alok notes. “The project was made much more efficient in terms of at least three disciplines: mechanical, electrical, and civil engineering.”

While the cases will compare efficient engineering projects with projects that weren’t designed to be efficient, not all the comparisons will be parallel. With Amory Lovins’s 1982 superefficient home in Snowmass, Colo., for example, researchers plan to do some energy modeling and compare the building as it exists (including an elaborate data-monitoring system now being commissioned) to a hypothetical version of the building built simply to meet the local building code.

At present, RMI researchers are working with partners along the engineering value chain to refine how the casebook will come together during the next few months, with the possibility of a “summer study” in July or August, convening researchers for intensive collaboration over a two-week period. The book itself will likely be published in 2010.

“It’s very important that we drive change as soon as possible,” Lionel says. “The things we design now have a lifespan of anywhere between 15 and 20 years for a car and 50 and 100 years for a building. The more we wait, the longer it’s going to take to have an impact.”

Perhaps more important will be 10xE’s influence on people. Some leading professors and practicing engineers are already using the term “brown engineering” for standard engineering practices, and engineering students who’ve been exposed to “green engineering” quickly become diehard advocates, helping to build momentum for superior design. Once these young engineers enter the marketplace, their very existence will help create further demand for green engineering.

“10xE will hopefully foster an entire generation of newly and better educated students who will go on to do amazing things because they have been properly trained,” notes Lionel. “This won’t just change the built world around us; it’ll change our fundamental relationships with both what we build and the Earth itself.”

RMI is still searching for case studies for our 10XE project. If you have case suggestions, please contact Tali Trigg at ttrigg@rmi.org.

Cameron Burns, a senior editor at Rocky Mountain Institute, has written
about environmental, green architecture, energy, and sustainability
issues for nearly 20 years. His work has appeared in newspapers,
magazines, websites and books, including the Denver Post, Solar Today,
TreeHugger and "Building Without Borders."

Blueprint image -- CC licensed by Flickr user Thristian.