Engineering decisions critical for ensuring sustainability

It is easy to assume that ensuring sustainability is someone else’s responsibility, or that our engineering decisions are too small to affect the bigger picture. That is not the case: there are constant daily reminders about global climate changes, and all engineers have a part to play. Sustainability of resources and materials, along with increasing renewable energy use are critical before the world reaches a tipping point.

Businesses need to make a profit to survive and to provide returns for their stakeholders. The means finance departments and funding play an important part in decision making. The challenge for engineers is to promote low energy solutions, even when there are lower cost conventional alternatives. Engineers also need to be smarter about understanding how their employers evaluate engineering decisions and return on investment (ROI).

We are filling the oceans with plastic and waste: people and animals are unintentionally consuming potentially hazardous plastics. Our current take-make-dispose consumption model is not sustainable. Incredibly, 99% of what we buy is thrown away within six months.  Mostly it ends up in landfill, with the potential to pollutes land, water, and the atmosphere.

In their blog, Schneider Electric also argues that we need to move away from the take-make-dispose consumption cradle-to-grave model.  This model presupposes obsolescence with goods made with low cost/quality ingredients requiring disposal or replacement in short time. They advocate adopting a circular economy aimed at minimising waste and making the most of resources.

Ensuring sustainability

According to Wikipedia, in a circular system resource input and waste, emission, minimising energy leakage by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops. Achieving this is by way of long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling. This regenerative approach contrasts with the traditional linear economy, which has a ‘take, make, dispose’ model of production. However, repairing much modern equipment in home and businesses is not possible, and often we have lost the skills to repair them anyway.

Sustainability does not mean a drop in the quality of life for consumers and is achievable without loss of revenue or extra costs for manufacturers. The argument is that circular business models can be as profitable as linear models, allowing us to keep enjoying similar products and services. The world survives using electricity. The use of renewable sources is increasing but we remain heavily reliant on the use of fossil fuels

Renewable energy

Fossil fuels are the main source of CO2, and one of the primary causes of global warming. Burning them to create energy gives off gases harmful to living organisms and greenhouse gases. The gases become trapped in the atmosphere and drive global warming. Aside from nuclear power, there is no viable alternative likely within the next fifty years, so we need to increase the use of alternative renewable sources.

Continuing investment is required for the develop of cleaner renewable energy sources and also new ways to store the electricity. Many indirect cost saving offset renewable costs, such as lower health cost, reductions in mining, drilling, transporting of raw material. Hopefully it will be possible to mitigate the effects of global warning.

Engineers should place ensuring sustainability high on their agenda as it also indirectly increase productivity. Starting with the major power consuming areas, there are many ways of optimising existing plant to improve energy management. For example, increasing the use of predictive maintenance, installing high efficiency motors and increasing the use of VSDs. Even small changes make a difference. Discuss your goals and challenges with your automation supplier and see hope they can help.