Engineers Weigh In On Sustainability

Through discussion with technology providers, analysts, and various industry cognoscenti over the past few years, it has become very apparent that the issue of sustainability is not a passing fad—for manufacturing or any other business. But especially for manufacturing and process plants. Here’s why: Though “green” issues have a lot of positives—from good public re...


Through discussion with technology providers, analysts, and various industry cognoscenti over the past few years, it has become very apparent that the issue of sustainability is not a passing fad—for manufacturing or any other business. But especially for manufacturing and process plants.

Here’s why: Though “green” issues have a lot of positives—from good public relations to compliant operations—the problem is that “green” is too often easily dismissed for personal and political reasons. Sustainability is another matter, however, even though it is a term that is often used interchangeably with green.

Info Controls, Green Energy Technologies
At its core, sustainability is really about viable business operation. As the word suggests, it is about sustaining the business as much as it is about sustaining the resources you need to operate the business. That’s why it is such a critical matter for engineers.

Every aspect of a sustainable plant operation is dependent on the knowledge, talents, and abilities of engineers. Without engineers, sustainability as Control Engineering defines it (energy management, materials management, regulatory compliance, and product safety), isn’t sustainable. That’s why we turned to our subscribers (both print and online) to get a true feel for where their collective head is at with regard to sustainability. The responses we received helped focus the content of this supplement and the upcoming monthly coverage of the sustainable engineering topic that will begin in January 2009.

Demographic details

We conducted the survey in July 2008 and received more than 1,400 responses. The survey focused on illustrating how plant engineers across industries perceive sustainable manufacturing as an issue. Four specific areas spotlighted by the survey include: awareness and adoption levels; approaches; impact on operations; and challenges and obstacles.

Respondents ran the gamut in age, company size, industry, and function. The largest age group sector of respondents ranged from 45-54; both $1 billion plus and $5 million and less organizations were nearly equally represented; and though respondents largely identified themselves as controls engineers (16%), the remainder of respondents were fairly equally distributed across such functions as operations engineers, electrical engineers, production engineers, management, system/product design engineers, process engineers, and system integrators. In short, a healthy cross-section of Control Engineering subscribers’ opinions are represented in this survey.

Roles and perceptions

So just what do our subscribers think about sustainability? At first glance, there seems to be some confusion.

Only 12% claim to be very familiar with the issue, yet 54% say the issue is definitely on their company’s radar. Adding to the confusion is the fact that 81% claim to have some knowledge of the sustainability issue and nearly 100% are involved in sustainability issues at their plants, ranging from high-level strategy (12%) and objectives setting (20%) to implementation (36%) and product development (22%).

Despite these facts, 48% claim that sustainability is not relevant to their products or business and 28% are waiting to see if it gains traction with customers or competitors.

When did the smart application of engineering to save energy, materials, time, and money become irrelevant or potentially faddish to a manufacturing operation?

The only logical answer for such discrepancies is a misunderstanding of the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable manufacturing.” And this is certainly understandable given that “sustainable” and “green” are often used interchangeably, not just in the mass media but by industrial automation vendors and analysts as well. This underscores Control Engineering ’s reasoning behind launching this supplement and monthly coverage beginning in 2009—to help clarify the term as it relates to process and discrete manufacturing industries, and to illuminate the associated responsibilities of engineers in those industries.

Our goal is two-fold:

1) To help define the term as it relates to core engineering issues—energy use, raw and post-process materials management, regulatory compliance, and product safety; and

2) Help educate subscribers in their engineering efforts associated with these issues, to ensure they are aware of the contributions they can make through these efforts to keeping their companies alive and competitive.

From internal approaches to sustainability to customer and client involvement, it is clear that sustainability issues impac the entire manufacturing ecosystem; yet 48% of respondents think it is not relevant to ther products/businesses. This is clear evidence of a disconnect on the topic.

From internal approaches to sustainability to customer and client involvement, it is clear that sustainability issues impac the entire manufacturing ecosystem; yet 48% of respondents think it is not relevant to ther products/businesses.

External influences

Looking outside the four walls of their plants, subscribers answered questions about their perceptions of sustainable manufacturing among partners, clients, and competitors.

More than 60% have noticed competitor companies becoming involved in sustainability issues. Sixty-five percent claim that clients have approached them about providing products and services that address sustainability issues, while 59% say that supply chain partners are asking the same.

Respondents also note that their company’s sustainability efforts are both internally and externally focused. More than 50% say their companies are focused on helping customers achieve sustainability as well as concentrating on the sustainability of their own operations.

With this type of demand coming from all corners of industry, in addition to the operational effort being exerted internally and externally, the question remains: Why do 48% believe this issue may not be relevant to their business?

Follow the money

As with any business initiative, sustainability is not escaping the reach of the bean counters or the corporate accountability police.

Fully 60% of respondents note that their company requires a return on investment (ROI) for sustainable activities, and that the ROI is largely expected to be reaped within the first 5 years of implementation (37% expect return within 1-2 years and 47% expect it within 3-5 years).

A slight majority (53%) claim that their sustainability initiatives are tied to other programs versus being managed separately. Of those tied programs, quality is the program most often associated with sustainability (72%), followed by lean manufacturing (55%), and Six Sigma (41%).

Funding for sustainable manufacturing initiatives tends to stand alone. Nearly 80% of respondents say that funding for sustainable projects comes from increases in capital allocations rather than from funds diverted from other areas. This response helps clarify why 41% of respondents feel their organization’s sustainability efforts are more long-term and strategic, rather than short-term and tactical.

Why should you care?

Responses to this survey prove the assertions that have been made about sustainable manufacturing over the past few years—it’s here to stay. And the reasons go far beyond any push for a “greening” of the industry that may or may not have staying power depending on your own personal or political viewpoints.Green Energy Technologies

At its core, sustainable manufacturing is about good business sense enabled by very intelligent engineering. As such, it can be the catalyst for keeping the doors of a manufacturing operation open, in addition to keeping it competitive on a global scale.

More importantly, sustainable manufacturing, though a relatively new term, is not a new invention. Thus the fad label does not apply. Its central tenets of energy management, materials management, compliance, and product safety are core engineering practices. What’s different now is that these four areas of focus represent the center of best practice manufacturing and engineering. Why? Because they are so critical to the success or failure of a business due to the rising costs of energy and materials, and the global economic forces that so heavily influence manufacturing in every area of the world.

Source : Control Engineering

Controls engineering


Operations & maintenance


Electrical/electronics engineering


General/corporate management


Production/manufacturing engineering


Instrument engineering


System design engineering


Product design engineering


Process engineering


Systems integrator


Evaluation/quality control


Project software engineering


Machine builder




Age group











65 and over


Company size

& $5 million


$5 million-$24.9 million


$25 million-$49.9 million


$50 million-$100 million


$101 million-$499 million


$500 million-$999 million


$1 billion or more


Author Information

Control Engineering editorial director David Greenfield can be reached at .

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