For would-be engineers, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) sets the standards for university education. University engineering departments seeking accreditation must demonstrate how they meet the ABET criteria. If they don’t, their graduates won’t be eligible for licensure as Professional Engineers. For the 2019-2020 school year, the ABET criteria for student outcomes include
“an ability to apply engineering design to produce solutions that meet specified needs with consideration of public health, safety, and welfare, as well as global, cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors.”
While the emphasis on global, cultural, and social factors may be relatively new, the profession’s service of the public health, safety, and welfare is not. Rudyard Kipling wrote several poems lauding the practical service of engineers. This discussion examines each factor in turn to provide some guidance.
Senior design projects vary widely, and it may be that a particular project does not have significant effects in one or more of these areas. If so, it is acceptable to state that the project has only minor effects in a particular area. On the other hand, it is extremely unlikely that a project has only one effect. It may help to consider the effects not only from the standpoint of the client (usually the owner), but also from that of the supplier, the employee, the customer, and the general public. If a labor-saving device eliminates jobs, for example, it is an economic benefit to the employer. However, it’s also a negative socioeconomic effect for employees and the community. Or the environmental benefits from green stormwater infrastructure may drive up rents, making housing unaffordable for some residents.
Some clients are multinational corporations. In that case, selling their products in many countries is a global effect. The price of the product in relation to local incomes will determine whether it is accessible to the average person. Cultural factors may present obstacles to its acceptance in some markets.
However, even if a product is available in only one country, its raw materials may come from many others. In countries where labor and environmental regulations don’t exist or are not consistently enforced, it may be difficult to avoid the products of exploited labor, child labor, unsafe working conditions, or environmentally destructive practices. Responsible sourcing addresses the human-rights aspects of raw materials.
Some projects focus on small-scale solutions for a specific local community. They may seem to be just the opposite of “global.” However, what works in one place may find its way to other places. One of my professors developed a simple cooking stove using rice husks as fuel for use in villages in India. When I shared the idea with people in Nigeria, everyone was enthusiastic about the prospect of burning waste from their two annual rice crops instead of scarce firewood. Even better, they could grind the ash from the rice husks for use as a building material.
If a project helps make better use of scarce resources, it may improve relationships between groups of people. For example, in a dry region, the competition for water may lead to conflict. Drip irrigation or desalination plants could ease tensions by making it easier for people to meet their needs. Similarly, a project that improves crop yields or reduces food waste could reduce the potential for conflict by increasing food security.
Cultural factors may determine the acceptability of a product in a particular market or suggest how to market a product. In some countries, for example, women do most of the farming. A company selling agricultural technology in that cultural context would need to direct its design and marketing toward women. In addition, factors such as cultural perceptions, language, and lack of literacy may act as barriers to the use of a product.
Consumer products and medical devices may have more obvious cultural effects than business-to-business products or internal processes. For example, a medical device that helps disabled people participate more fully in society may help change cultural perceptions of people with that disability.
Cultural factors may also affect how you communicate with your client. One student team had a client with offices in the US and Germany. In their draft report, they described something as “about the size of a football.” I pointed out that their German clients would understand “football” as what we’d call a soccer ball. Such sports-related references, while common in the US, may not mean anything to people who did not grow up here.
Culture can also affect implementation of a project. For example, the Texas power outage of 2021 should have come as no surprise to the utilities, their regulator, or the Texas legislature. After all, there had been a similar incident ten years earlier. Following the 2011 outage, lawmakers ordered an investigation and a report, which made a series of recommendations for preventing future outages. They knew what to do, but regulating their utilities would have been contrary to their cultural values of independence and opposition to government regulation. So they failed to act, leaving millions of Texans without electricity or heat and half the population without access to safe drinking water.
Ergonomic improvements may have significant social effects. These include fewer injuries to workers, opening job opportunities to a broader pool of workers, and prolonging their working lives. For example, in the 1970s my father designed some devices to reduce the amount of heavy lifting required at a processing plant. His intent was to open more jobs to women. However, once the devices were in use, both men and women experienced fewer injuries. The plant owner reaped economic benefits in terms of reduced workers’ compensation costs and reduced employee turnover.
Labor-saving devices and practices are usually implemented for economic reasons. However, they can have social effects as well. What happens to the employees doing these jobs depends on whether the employer eliminates their jobs, increases production with the same work force, or finds other work for them. If it frees them to do more rewarding tasks, it can improve the quality of their lives. If it obviates the need for child labor, the children can go to school instead.
Medical devices that save lives, enable patients to participate more fully in everyday life, or improve health have social as well as economic benefits. These may include enabling patients to contribute longer or more fully to their work, families, and communities.
Anything that changes the way people interact with one another —from communication devices to urban design —can have significant social effects. For example, a homeless shelter in Minneapolis has a open plan on the first floor to promote security among people in various states of intoxication. As they take advantage of the shelter’s services and grow more independent, they move up to higher floors, where they have more privacy. The structural engineering supports the architecture, which supports the interior design. And they all support the mission of ending homelessness.
Of all the ABET criteria for student outcomes, economics is the most familiar. Engineers have always had to consider the economic implications of their work. “Good, cheap, fast: pick two,” is a truism of project management. Engineering has always been about optimizing quality, cost, and schedule.
An engineer can do for a dollar what any fool can do for two.–Arthur Mellen Wellington, 1847-1895
The perspective of economic analysis in engineering has traditionally been that of the owner. It focuses on such factors as the present value of a capital investment, the annual cost of operation and maintenance, and the cost of labor- and resource inputs.
However, economics also affects suppliers, employees, consumers (or end users), and the general public. For example, the cost of a highway improvement to the state highway department may be small compared to the cost to drivers of traffic delays due to congestion.
Similarly, a manufacturer may guarantee to replace defective parts free of charge. For the user, though, the cost of having to shut down operations to replace defective parts may be much higher. That’s especially the case when an unscheduled shutdown prevents their meeting a production deadline. Improving product reliability may mean far more to the user than to the manufacturer.
The price of a product is a major factor in determining which potential customers will have access to it. Some products require highly skilled workers to install or operate them. If so, the need for such skills also limits access. Simplifying installation and operation could greatly expand the market for such products.
Environmental factors have been part of the ABET criteria for student outcomes for years, and sustainability has become part of the engineering culture. In analyzing the environmental effects of a product, consider its entire life from sourcing of raw materials through manufacture, use, and disposal or recycling. Environmental product declarations provide a great deal of information on their environmental effects.
Consider what resources go into making a product. How much metal, fuel, water, and other resources go into its manufacture? Are these virgin- or recycled materials? What waste is generated through emissions, effluents, and scrap materials? Similarly, what resources does it consume and what waste does it generate during its useful life? Finally, how much of it is easy to recycle? What becomes of the rest of it? Do any of its components require special handling or disposal?
Durability is not only an economic benefit, but also an environmental one. The longer something lasts, the less frequently it must be replaced. That means it uses fewer resources to produce and generates less solid waste for disposal.
For agricultural projects, consider the effects on soil health. Specifically, what are the effects on fertility, erosion, and contamination of soil?
Quantifying the analysis
Is the proposed plan economically feasible? Which option will result in the greatest reduction in lost-time accidents? Do the benefits exceed the costs?
Students should quantify as much of their analysis as they can. Otherwise it’s too vague to support an informed decision. Where reliable data are not available, estimates can be helpful. Be sure to make clear that they are estimates and try to quantify the uncertainty involved. Indicate any assumptions you made and provide the sources of your data.
An economic analysis could be in dollars or units that are readily converted to dollars. Energy saved could be in units of kWh or BTUs. Safety improvements could be in terms of days of lost-time injuries. One could estimate the size of the potential market for a medical device from the number of patients with the relevant medical condition.
Survey results or census data could quantify, for example, labor-force participation of women or the percentage of the population who completed secondary school. A company’s human resources department should have data on workplace injuries, workers’ compensation, disabilities, retirements, and employee turnover. While it may not be possible to calculate, say, the potential benefits of an ergonomic improvement, it should be possible to determine how many injuries have been associated with that process in the last five years, providing a baseline for measuring future improvements. If your client is not willing to supply such data, you could outline how they could perform the analysis themselves.
Environmental analysis could be in terms of tons of CO2 emitted, gallons of water consumed, or barrels of oil saved. In some cases, environmental benefits such as reductions in solid waste or savings in fuel translate directly to economic savings. In other cases, they may need to comply with environmental regulations.
Meeting the ABET criteria for student outcomes
At the University of St. Thomas, we use our engineering capstone course to meet a number of ABET criteria for student outcomes. The final report includes the students’ analysis of the “global, cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors” of their project. Here is a qualitative example of how to analyze these factors for a consumer product.