February 16, 2022
Every year after Christmas, I start thinking about sustainability. My kids get a fairly sizable pile of gifts each year, but I am always struck by how much bigger the pile of packaging is compared to the actual presents.
In my previous life as an editor on a supply chain technology magazine, I wrote a lot of stories about efficiency. At the time, packaging efficiency was a hot topic because logistics costs were just then beginning what turned out to be a rapid increase. Packaging volume (not weight) was a critical consideration.
That was before same-day Amazon shipping, driver shortages and a two-year pandemic made things even worse.
Product design plays a role here, along with packaging design. In fact, environmental sustainability is playing a larger role in design across industries as companies try to create more fuel-efficient vehicles, design with eco-friendly materials in mind and leverage technology to streamline supply chains.
Not everyone sees it that way. In our annual Technology Outlook survey, we asked about the importance of environmental sustainability in design. Roughly 75% of respondents indicated that sustainability was somewhat or extremely important. Respondents cited pressure from customers, corporate environmental initiatives, compliance and concerns around climate change as reasons for this focus.
More interesting were the responses from those who said sustainability was not important. In a few cases, this was because there was not really an application for sustainability in their designs. Several, however, believed that sustainability was a political issue, not an engineering problem.
I would push back on that. Sustainability is a perfect example of an engineering problem. At the heart of just about every environmental concern is a problem of efficiency, and making products and processes more efficient is something engineers are good at.
Regardless of how you feel about climate change or politics or pollution, these problems of waste and efficiency should be top of mind, all the time. If you are an executive at a manufacturing firm, and at the end of your process there is a pile of garbage, or packaging, or a bunch of barrels of toxic sludge, or a giant energy bill, then your process is flawed. You can hand in your Six Sigma Black Belt on the way out the door.
These efficiency issues are increasingly a practical business concern. The amount of e-waste we generate is not just a problem because we are stuck with heaps of electronics in landfills; it is not financially sustainable for many consumers to constantly refresh devices. Making devices easier to repair and last longer is an engineering issue, not a political one.
The same is true for fossil fuel usage. Even if you are not worried about climate change, does it make any sense to design less fuel-efficient cars? Using less fuel (whatever that fuel is) is a cost savings for producers and consumers.
I realize that these changes come at a cost, but making better designs more affordable is a challenge that I think engineers can tackle, too, and new software and tools are emerging that will make this process easier.
In this issue, we have asked our writers to take a look at a wide range of sustainable engineering innovations. I plan to revisit this topic throughout the year as well, and I welcome any input from our readers about how engineering can be used to tackle these problems of sustainability and efficiency.