Many times we tend to focus on what CEOs or CFOs think about sustainability and its integration in their organizations. While it’s obvious that the C-Suite perspectives are extremely important to understanding trends in business, it’s also important to check out the pulse of the people that shape and take part in some of the most crucial parts of the workflow – engineers.
Therefore I was happy to see the 2012 Sustainable Design Trend Watch Survey conducted jointly by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and 3D design software company Autodesk. Drawn from the responses of 4,500 engineers and 1,900 engineering students, this annual survey provides a great opportunity to learn about how present and future generations of mechanical engineers approach sustainable design.
First, let’s have a look at the practitioners – mechanical engineers that work in manufacturing businesses in industries like automotive and transportation, industrial machinery, consumer products, and energy. According to the survey, 87 percent of them indicate that, on a personal level, they are “extremely or somewhat” interested in sustainable information and causes. On the professional side, 75 percent indicate that their companies are involved in or extremely involved in sustainability, mostly through reduced energy consumption and reduced environmental emissions in products and systems.
This survey is the fourth one conducted so it’s interesting to see not just the results, but also how opinions have shifted over time. Take for example the involvement of organizations in sustainability. This year shows not only the largest percentage of companies involved with sustainability or sustainability technologies (75 percent) but a reversal of a downward trend – in the last two years this percentage has decreased, though it was still between 60-70 percent.
Looking at the design areas where companies are involved with sustainability, you can see that the first two on the list haven’t changed in the last four years: designs that use less energy or reduce emissions and designs that comply with environmental standards and regulations respectively (both around 70 percent). That’s not a huge surprise since we need mechanical engineers to make these design improvements. The first significant change is on the third place: designs with low carbon footprint (40 percent), which jumped up from last year’s rank at the bottom of the list. The second significant change is the presence of ‘manufacturing processes that minimize the usage or production of substances of concern’ which is on the list for the first time with about 30 percent.
“Sustainability is clearly establishing itself as part of the mechanical engineering culture,” says Thomas G. Loughlin, ASME Executive Director. One indication that backs up Louglin’s statement is the answer to the following question: Over the past year, approximately what portion of all of your projects included specifications that were based on sustainable and/or green design principles beyond those mandated by. regulations?
This year only 21 percent of the respondents answered this question with 0% or ‘doesn’t apply to my circumstances’ compared with about 39 percent last year. In all, we see a continuing trend – mechanical engineers increasingly focus on sustainable design projects and the portion of sustainable design requirements in all product specs is also increasing.
The survey provides also an opportunity to learn about companies’ approach to sustainability and sustainable design. Industrial firms, the survey reports, find it more difficult than individuals to embrace sustainability, due in large part to financial constraints and corporate goals to enhance the serviceability of products. Yet, I have to note that costs aren’t always an obstacle – while about half of the respondents say their company will not invest in sustainable design practices if it will increase costs, 28 percent replied “we will spend extra to incorporate sustainable design practices in most new products.”
And what about the future generation of mechanical engineers? Students get more involved in sustainable design mainly through special elective classes on sustainable design, special assignments on sustainable engineering and extracurricular projects and/or competitions. Apparently engineering schools still don’t share the notion that sustainability is becoming part of the mechanical engineering culture since only 28 percent of current students report that it is included in the standard curriculum.
The students themselves apparently are more tuned to the signals they receive from their departments and less to the ones the practitioners provide – their interest in sustainability is mostly due to a desire to do good in the world (58 percent). Only 15 percent believe it is necessary in their career as engineers and the percentage of students hoping it will give them competitive advantage when applying for jobs is even smaller – 5 percent.
Even though the engineering departments seem to be lagging behind the industry when it comes to embracing sustainable design, we can expect this trend to get stronger in the coming future. The key here is innovation – already 75 percent of respondents believe that sustainable designs produce greater product innovation. As companies grow to understand the importance and benefits of sustainable innovation, we can expect mechanical engineers to embrace even more sustainable design. Their main challenge will be to find how to make sustainable innovation and cost reduction synonymous. I certainly hope they can do it!
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.