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Engineering a Better Future: Building an Alternative to our “Culture of Stuff”

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After five onerous years of long nights in the library, lab reports submitted too close to the deadline, and relentless exams, I graduated this May with a degree in mechanical engineering. The engineering community at my university is dominated by students hoping to land high-flying jobs at SpaceX or Microsoft, and a good number of them succeed. As a campus, we championed a culture of innovation and, simply put, “making.” Our racing teams, who built race cars from near-scratch in our machine shops, were the darlings of the administration.

The culture at my university reflects the tone of engineering in the real world: make new things, and make more things. Sent into industry with this in mind, I was hired into two manufacturing internships. In both, my mission was relatively straightforward: make it easier for my employer to (1) make more stuff and (2) make more money. I troubleshot material defects, maximized work time efficiency for an assembly line, and spent countless hours improving documentation. My improvements meant more products made it out the door, and the company saved more money.

And yet, I was miserable. An engineer’s job is to make tools that make life easier, whether they be smartphones or suspension bridges. The environmentalist’s job is to live and promote sustainability. As an engineer who also cares deeply about the environment, I found myself contributing to a global waste problem that would inevitably make life much harder.

Consumers see the end result of the manufacturing process in crisp packaging and stocked shelves, but the production end is less pristine. In 2018, the U.S. threw out an overwhelming 73 million tons of production-related waste, on top of our 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste. At my own companies, I saw defective products, scrap material, and byproducts tossed constantly, usually because time was prioritized over trash. Depending on the process, the worst of that trash can range from non-recyclable to toxic.

The products that result from the process create their own problems. Stuff that isn’t made to last (some is intentionally designed to be replaced quickly) or that can’t easily be repaired is destined for the trash heap within a few months or years. A huge portion of our stuff is tossed even sooner: half of all plastic products are intended to be thrown out after a single use. The companies that manufacture these products are essentially in the business of producing trash – and engineers make it possible. The engineer’s job is to design a product and a process to fulfill a short-term need, and not to worry about what happens next.

Why are we throwing out so much stuff? In part – at least in the world of engineering – it’s because we’ve been brainwashed by a single misused/misconstrued word: innovation. As Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russel write in The Innovation Delusion (a must-read for anyone working in tech), the term once meant ingenuity and problem solving to make progress— but it’s now come to mean making more stuff, and doing it as fast as possible, with no thought toward the repercussions. Instead of producing enough to make our lives livable, we overproduce to the point of making them unlivable. The engineer’s goal of making life easier gets murky as the stuff intended to make life better actually makes it much worse.

There are certainly tactics for making manufacturing more sustainable. Additive manufacturing (designing by putting parts together rather than removing material) and resource management limit collateral trash. Clever product design can save material. But even as our waste problem grows, so does product demand, and manufacturing leaps forward on an upward trajectory.

So what can we do as engineers? Should we avoid manufacturing as a rule? Not exactly. Here are some ways we can make a difference:

  1. Celebrate real innovation. Our culture of stuff is creating more problems than it solves. If we can focus our efforts and our appreciation on successful solutions, we can minimize the influence of “full steam ahead” production.
  2. Produce with intention. We need to challenge the status quo. Making with intention could mean a number of things, like using environmentally sustainable materials, planning a process to minimize scrap, or designing a more robust product that won’t break after a year. It could also mean deciding that a product shouldn’t be made at all.
  3. Spend effort on the right projects, with the right people. The idea of producing and designing a product with sustainability in mind can fall on deaf ears if an organization doesn’t prioritize their net impact. When searching for jobs, a company’s sustainability report is a great place to start to assess whether that company is “greenwashing,” or whether it actually has meaningful sustainability practices and goals. If a company doesn’t have a report, or if their report doesn’t contain much detail, ask around. Production engineers should have a good idea of their company’s sustainability practices – and if they aren’t in the loop, that might be a red flag.
  4. Prioritize maintenance. Maintenance is the unsung hero of sustainability, and often the underutilized key to success. Products that aren’t built with maintenance in mind need to be replaced more quickly, and without a widespread right to repair, that decision isn’t even in the hands of the consumer. The same is just as true at the national level. U.S. infrastructure has been in dire need of repair for decades, and yet, this June alone, the U.S. spent over $1.5 trillion on construction. Prioritizing maintenance allows us to slow down production and keep what we already have, as well as make it safer to use.

Engineers can play a critical role in shifting away from a culture of consumption and waste. That shift starts with redefining our priorities and goals, and ends with a new era of innovation focused on solutions that benefit both consumers and our environment.

Image via pxfuel