This article discusses ASME/Autodesk Sustainable Design Survey results and suggestions. The survey reveals that more engineers than ever before report working on an increasingly diverse range of sustainability projects. Companies are also showing growing interest in using recycled and renewable materials, and minimizing toxic and other substances of concern. The survey asked engineers to pick the two most important sustainable practices. However, several engineers used the survey to complain about government regulations. Suggestions provided by engineers and experts ranged from offering more college and on-the-job training courses in sustainability to sharing best practices and showcasing successful designs. Several engineers wanted a set of standards—definitions and measurements—to design against. The survey suggests that sustainable practices involve a change in mindset that is difficult to implement. Innovation always contains a certain element of risk, and minimizing risk is always at the forefront in business practice.
For years, mechanical engineers have struggled with the concept of sustainability. They have sought to define it, measure it, and—most important of all—understand where it fits into their corporate, project, and product strategies. Those debates are nowhere close to ending. In the past, some have called for little short of reinventing mechanical engineering, design, production, and construction.
Others have argued that reducing waste and energy consumption is simply good engineering by another name. Still others scoff at green engineering as “the flavor of the week,” a window dressing used by corporations to disguise the relentless pursuit of lower costs and higher profits at any price.
In the 2012 ASME/Autodesk Sustainable Design Survey, engineers made all those arguments and more. They complained about lack of management commitment, the difficulty of educating customers, and unremitting pressures that make it impossible to look at life-cycle costs. Some argued that sustainable practices save money over the long term; others insisted they are too costly.
Yet sustainability is clearly establishing itself as part of the mechanical engineering culture. More engineers than ever before report working on an increasingly diverse range of sustainability projects.
This year’s survey, the largest of its kind, set records for participation: 4,500 mechanical engineers and almost 1,900 mechanical engineering students responded.
Among the working engineers, two- thirds held jobs in design/develop- ment, consulting/professional services, engineering management, and R&D. Roughly two-thirds work in such major industries as energy/power/nuclear, consulting/design/professional services, manufacturing, aerospace/defense, and oil and gas. Another 9 percent were in academia.
About half worked in large organizations, 25 percent with between 1,000 and 10,000 employees, and another 25 percent in companies with more than 10,000 employees. Twenty percent work for small businesses with less than 50 employees.
So what do they have to say?
When asked about their organization’s involvement with sustainability, 75 percent replied they were "involved” or "extremely involved.” That’s an increase of nine percentage points from the 2011 survey. On a personal level, 87 percent of engineers surveyed said they were extremely or somewhat interested in sustainable information and causes. Last year, that figure was 65 percent.
Nearly 70 percent of respondents said their companies are involved on projects that reduce energy or emissions or that comply with environmental standards and regulations.
It is no surprise that these two categories always get the most attention. On one hand, reducing energy consumption or emissions lowers operating costs, so it makes companies more competitive. On the other, firms must meet environmental standards and regulations to stay in business.
Yet today’s globalized economy may be affecting how companies think about the future. Costs remain critical. This is especially true of energy and commodity costs. The price of oil, for example, was about $15 per barrel in 1999. This past year, oil has been as high as $110 per barrel. Other industrially important commodities, such as copper, steel, and rare earth metals, have become either expensive or scarce.
This rapid run-up in cost was a function of increased demand from China, India, Brazil, and other developing nations. This may have influenced how many corporations think about resources. According to our respondents, their companies have begun to examine a broader range of options, such as reducing materials use, waste, and other manufacturing expenses, in order to make their cost advantages more sustainable. A full 38 percent say their companies are working on manufacturing processes that use less energy and natural resources, up from 27 percent last year.
Companies are also showing growing interest in using recycled and renewable materials, and minimizing toxic and other substances of concern.
When asked to pick the three factors mostly likely to influence their company’s approach to sustainability, regulatory requirements and rising energy costs are still one-two in total votes. But client demand received nearly as many total votes as energy this year.
Several other factors, all grouped together, highlighted the growing diversity of reasons behind organizational actions. These included sustainability incentives, materials cost and availability, personal commitment, market advantage, and long-term return on investment.
The survey asked engineers to pick the two most important sustainable practices. Just as in years past, “designs that use less energy or reduce emissions” garnered the most votes. In fact, that choice received half again as many total votes as the next leading contender.
In the past, the second most important sustainable practice was “designs that comply with environmental standards and regulations.” This year, that was edged out by "manufacturing processes that use less energy and natural resources,” which suggests that companies are increasingly interested in reducing costs in their factories.
Moreover, mechanical engineers expect to see a greater emphasis on sustainability in the future. When asked if they expected their organizations to increase sustainable and green specifications in the coming year, nearly two-thirds answered “a great deal” or “somewhat.” About one-third expected no change. Only 38 respondents—about 1 percent —expected their organization’s involvement with sustainability to decrease.
Are engineers becoming greener? More than 70 percent of respondents said their co-workers were increasingly interested in green design. Roughly the same percentage agreed that such projects had greater design costs. Yet more than 75 percent believed that sustainable designs produced greater product innovation. Only one out of five respondents believed sustainable designs were too complex for their company.
What makes a company invest in sustainable design? One of the survey’s most significant findings is that the reasons have grown more diverse than in the past. Last year, for example, 34 percent of respondents stated their companies would only consider sustainable designs if they saved money. This year, the number is down modestly to 29 percent.
This is not because companies are less interested in saving money; it is because they have more reasons to go green. For example, just as many engineers—29 percent— said their companies would invest in green design if it does not add cost. Nearly as many said their companies would spend extra to incorporate sustainable design practices in most new products. These are both significantly higher than last year, and show how sustainability is working its way into the engineering culture.
Yet the transition is anything but smooth. Issues abound. This is abundantly clear when the survey asked engineers to describe the barriers their industry faced in adapting sustainable practices.
Their most pressing concern? “Cost control in the face of draconian competition for scarce work,” wrote one engineer. “Negligible cost benefit,” wrote another. “Immediate cost pressures. It’s not green to be bankrupt,” added a third.
Others are more nuanced on the subject. “The mindset [is] that sustainability is a cost, not an investment,” wrote one. “Increased capital investment requirements often kill [projects], unless ROI horizon is less than five years,” said another.
Customer demand can make a difference. “We are customer-driven; the customers do the prioritization for us,” wrote one. Several noted that they offer sustainable options and try to show customers how they can reduce life-cycle costs. Another said his company had a hard time “convincing clients that the extra costs are justified over the long-term.”
Industrial companies are interested in reliability, longterm performance, and serviceability. This tends to make them conservative. “A change to the existing way of doing things will require people to adapt. New technologies are not always embraced,” one engineer wrote. Another was more direct: “Everyone wants to be first to be second.”
These factors hold true in build as well as design projects. “Being in a project-based business, our company has to follow specifications prepared by clients,” an engineer explained. “Any proposal made in order to use sustainable practices needs lots of convincing of the client. Also, because of the thin profit margin, stiff competition, and schedule pressure, it becomes very difficult to adopt sustainable practices in [a] project environment.”
One of the more trenchant critiques is that the marketplace for sustainable products and technologies is by no means mature. Several respondents had trouble finding materials and products that met their specifications. Others complained that they have few options.
One symptom of an immature market is lack of standardization: “Until the reporting and terminology is standardized, [progress in sustainability] is meaningless.” Others called for standards-setting organizations, such as ASME, to play a greater role in creating ways to define and measure sustainability, the way architectural organizations have embraced such standards as LEED and Green Globes. “It is still difficult to have a commonly agreed standard and guideline for sustainable design,” one engineer wrote.
Given such substantial barriers, what do mechanical engineers believe their industry could do to encourage sustainable practices?
A handful of people answered “very little.” One answered, “Not a heck of a lot while we live in a greedocracy.”
Many argued for greater government intervention, either through incentives or regulation. One suggested “more engagement with regulatory and industry players.” Another called for sustainability to be made compulsory.
Several engineers used the survey to complain about government regulations. Some are clearly counter-productive. For example, in August, the New York Times carried a story about chemical companies that had increased production of refrigerants beyond market requirements so they could receive incentive dollars for destroying a regulated byproduct.
Yet few engineers who complained about regulations tied their elimination to sustainability. One respondent who did wrote: “Rationalize government regulations, weed away absurd ones, strengthen enforcement, make prison terms mandatory for violators—these steps will create a level playing field. Only then will industries be motivated to invest in sustainable practices.”
Greater education was also a popular choice. Suggestions ranged from offering more college and on-the-job training courses in sustainability to sharing best practices and showcasing successful designs. One engineer asked for “case studies on savings which can be models which can be emulated.”
Several engineers wanted a set of standards—definitions and measurements—to design against. “Continue to adopt codes that have higher energy savings,” said one. Another called for adoption of existing international standards, such as LEED and ISO 14001, “to discourage ‘green washing’ of products and services with excessive or unqualified sustainability claims.”
One expressed hope that standardization would result in more interchangeable sustainable parts and components.
Many engineers took a stance long associated with the profession: put up or shut up. “Make it at a lower cost and companies will follow,” wrote one. “Prove it works,” said a second. “Innovate and develop new processes,” wrote a third. “The cost advantage will be the driver,” added a fourth.
Individual initiative still counts. One engineer thought his utility could “drive development and implementation of sustainable practices by offering contract incentives for projects with a ‘green’ focus. Adding a sustainability performance criterion to project selection can increase the chances of certain projects getting approved, where they would previously be dismissed due to weaker financial benefits.”
Most people imagine the typical green engineer as a student fresh out of school. Not necessarily true. The percentage of engineering students “extremely involved” with sustainability was only 19 percent, compared to 27 percent of working engineers.
That makes sense: Undergraduates spend most of their time mastering the basics of the engineering curriculum. Graduate students are more likely to be “extremely involved,” especially with energy and emissions reduction, with Ph.D. students the most committed of all.
In addition to energy and emissions, common student assignments involve reducing materials use, waste, and natural resources in manufacturing and specifying recycled and recyclable materials in their designs. Overall, more than 70 percent of students say they are “extremely” or “somewhat” involved with sustainability.
How do students learn about sustainability? Twenty-eight percent said it is part of the standard curriculum, and 55 percent said they could take it as an elective. Another 36 percent said their professors gave them special assignments on sustainable engineering. A full 60 percent said their school provided extracurricular projects and competitions.
One area where students differ from working engineers is their attitudes toward sustainability: More than 90 percent of students believe that sustainable designs generate more product innovation, and 80 percent see growing interest in the field.
Yet most engineering students appear realistic. More than 70 percent agree that sustainable designs typically have higher design costs, and they consistently list cost as a key barrier to broader acceptance of green principles.
Many believe that lack of knowledge is a key barrier to broader acceptance of sustainability. From their comments on the survey, many engineering students believe they have sampled, but not mastered, skills ranging from design and materials specification to energy and waste reduction and life-cycle costing. And they understand that translating those skills into working projects and products will remain a challenge.
“One of the main arguments I have heard against renew- able/sustainable practices is, ‘We have always done it this way, why fix what isn’t broken?’” a student wrote. “Further, established practices frequently would need to retool or redesign their process in order to utilize some green technologies, which further reduce the likelihood of adoption.”
Others acknowledged cultural barriers. “Sustainable practices involve a change in mindset that is difficult to implement. Innovation always contains a certain element of risk, and minimizing risk is always at the forefront in business practices,” one student wrote.
Yet the same student shared the can-do spirit engineers have always brought to challenges, adding, “Once sustainable practices become well established, this hurdle will largely disappear.”
If sustainability establishes itself as a fundamental part of the engineering process, that is exactly how it will happen.
The ASME/Autodesk study on sustainability was a comprehensive survey gauging the opinions of members of ASME on matters of general sustainability and sustainable technologies.