Can mechanical engineers build a case for sustainable design?

Perhaps I speak for many of us in sustainability when I say that I’ve grown slightly jaded about the barrage of headlines in my inbox boasting cheery statistics related to levels of corporate commitment to sustainability.

Many of the survey result reports I read poll CEO perceptions, which not surprisingly, are astronomically high. For example, the excellent UN Global Compact/Accenture study last year said “Ninety-three percent of CEOs believe that sustainability will be critical to the future success of their business.”

The new Business for Social Responsibility/Globescan survey results, which I tear open with joyful glee (as much as one can tear open a PDF) each year, point out that among sustainability leaders, “The most important leadership challenge facing business today is the integration of sustainability into core business functions.” A respectable 62 percent said this was the most significant challenge.

OK, now we’re getting somewhere.

The BSR/Globescan study goes on to say that there is still widespread distrust of businesses by consumers. It asked the survey participants what strategies companies should take to improve public trust in business. Forty-five percent said that they are leveraging products and business models designed for sustainability to combat this distrust. Now we’re really getting somewhere.

To extend and examine these trends one step further, let’s look at a survey from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). For the past four years, Autodesk has worked closely with ASME to poll professional engineers and mechanical engineering students on sustainable design practices. These are not, for the overwhelming majority, “sustainable mechanical engineers.” They are generalist mechanical engineers who may specialize in a particular type of engineering, but not sustainable engineering per se. We poll them because it is important to see these trends to the very tip of a corporate commitment by a manufacturer: the design process, where many environmental and social impact decisions are made and locked in. If requirements for sustainability are not showing up there, the raft of statistics that appear in my inbox are just feel-good pats on the back and not necessarily moving the needle.

Now, with four years of good data from the ASME survey, we can start to make some assumptions. This year’s survey consisted of 38 questions, and I’m not going to get into all of them, but if you’re curious, the results are compiled here. The things that interested me the most were the following:

  • Three-quarters of professional engineers say that they are involved with sustainability or sustainable technologies. This is up from last year’s approximate two-thirds—growing despite the economy tanking and manufacturing jobs moving overseas.
  • Cost was, not surprisingly, consistently listed as the biggest hurdle to sustainable design implementation, yet the adoption of sustainable design techniques went up even though many commodity prices also went up. Responses like “Convincing industry that this is cost effective,” “Cost Control in the face of draconian competition for scarce work,” “The mindset that sustainability is a cost, not an investment” and “Capital required to implement any change in the manufacturing process” were pretty representative of the lot.
  • There was strong sentiment that sustainable design practices are not too complex to be implemented within a manufacturing firm or company, and the second-most-cited hurdle (behind cost of implementation) was lack of training.
  • “Designing products with low carbon footprints” rose from 25 percent last year to 40 percent this year, as a sustainable design objective of importance. I have some guesses as to why this might have increased so substantially—perhaps Grenelle II, PAS2050, or government procurement guidelines? I would love to hear your ideas as well.

These surveys stitched together are like a cloudy sky with bits of blue poking through—the importance of sustainable design continues to grow among engineers. The message does seem to be reflected everywhere, from C-level goals to design briefs. However, the “It costs too much more” myth still permeates the conversation, and that needs to change if we are to make real progress.

I like the way some of my customers are thinking about sustainability within a total-cost-of-ownership analysis of their products, and I’m hoping that this approach will help get us to the “Sustainable design is design as usual” end goal many of us have in mind.

Image by Vectomart via Shutterstock