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The New ‘EE’ in HighTech: Environmental Engineer?

Environmental compliance is taking its toll on the electronics industry, and not just in terms of paperwork. Replacing one substance with another is not going to continue to work in high-tech manufacturing, experts believe. Instead of reacting to the next banned substance, the industry should reconsider its entire approach to design and production.

Finding an alternative for lead in electronics products cost the industry nearly $33 billion in research, materials, equipment, and manpower, according to Michael Kirschner, president and founder of {complink 12808|Design Chain Associates LLC (DCA)}. In a Webinar held earlier today, Kirschner suggested the electronics industry begin integrating environmental engineering into its product development and manufacturing hierarchy. Manufacturing has largely ignored the environmental performance of the materials it uses — which helped drive the industrial revolution — but that's no longer sustainable, he says. “Now we have to consider the environment, so we have to change our entire appraoch.”

It won't be easy: Environmental engineers currently are educated within the civil engineering programs at college, and universities and are not steered toward the high-tech or manufacturing industries. Among other things, Kirschner suggests some cross-pollination between environmental and engineering curriculums.

“I don’t think we as an industry can keep doing substance replacements. We are letting governments and NGOs drive [the materials used in electronics],” Kirschner says. The high-tech industry has the kind of expertise and brainpower needed to lead the charge — rather than to follow.

10 comments on “The New ‘EE’ in HighTech: Environmental Engineer?

  1. DataCrunch
    December 10, 2010

    Barbara, very thought provoking.  I think many of the engineering programs will have to start, if they have not already done so, include “environmental engineering” aspects into their curriculums.  I know for a fact that some of the leading universities and colleges for Packaging Engineering have already started to include subjects on sustainability into their programs.  Without these subjects on environmental factors added to many of the engineering course work, new graduates will not be as prepared for the workforce as they should be.        

  2. Barbara Jorgensen
    December 10, 2010

    Thanks for the added insight. Anyone currently in college should seriously consider some kind of sustainability coursework no matter what degree they are pursuing.

  3. kumar1863
    December 11, 2010

    Thanks for the post Barbara. Lot of institutions are included environmental sciences as a part of their undergraduate curriculum. This will really give an insight into why we need to worry environment and what are the implications on environment. This will give them a foresight on environmental effects.

  4. eemom
    December 11, 2010

    Colleges are also offering Masters programs specifically for Environmental Engineering.  My sister who is a chemist and has spent all her career in the environmental field, seeing a need in the industry, decided to go back to school for her masters in the subject.  I do believe that we will start to see this migrate into an undergraduate degree.

  5. Ariella
    December 12, 2010

    New Jersey Institute of Technology offers a Master's in Environmental Engineering.  Civil and Environmental Engineering form one department there.  See http://civil.njit.edu/ Environmental Engineering is also listed among the undergraduate majors of the Newark College of Engineering.  I'm sure there are similar courses of study offered in other engineering schools. 

  6. saranyatil
    December 13, 2010

    yeah definitely i agree with you , now most of the undergraduate colleges in Asia have already started different programs on environmental engineering as a part of their curriculum. it is interesting to realize all these initiatives are taking place.

  7. mike_at_DCA
    December 13, 2010

    Courses in “sustainability” are pretty high-level and are certainly part of what's important. But I want to see coursework at a level below that, and integrated in to existing EE and ME courses. For instance, when you're designing a resistor(let's pick something “simple”, hah!), you already know that need to understand functional parameters of the materials you're using, like sheet resistivity, impedance, melting temperature, tensile strength, etc. In addition, you should be looking at toxicological properties like carcinogenicity, reuse and recovery properties (like how extractable is this substance in the recycling stream), energy properties, process waste generation, and so on.

    To deal with these sorts of environmental performance parameters in the electronic product (or component) design process, design engineers need first to understand that they exist and how to assess them. That will mean, of course, that these parameters will need to be measured or extracted, and provided on the datasheet right next to all the AC, DC, time and thermal parameters. Imagine that.

    The training that exists today in civil engineering courses is directed at a different class of problems; the information is probably there to some degree but it  needs to be reassessed and courses revised and refocused so it can be taught to the electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, material science, and other classes of students. Environmental impact of electronic product design and manufacture is a somewhat different problem than environmental impact of bridge design and implementation, for instance. One example is that bridges use an enormous amount of a handful of materials often souced locally; electronics are made of tiny amounts of thousands of substances sourced all over the planet. How you deal with that is necessarily different.

    Then there's the whole area of the Business School's interest in this area. Stay tuned!

  8. tdicorcia
    December 15, 2010

    I was recently at the U. of Michigan pursuing a Masters in Engineering in Manufacturing. At the same time, I took a certificate in industrial ecology at the University's School of Natural Resources and Environment. <http://www.snre.umich.edu/degree_programs/industrial_ecology>. 

    Industrial ecology teaches one how to perform a LifeCycle Assessment (LCA) for a product and also how to measure overall energy use in products and processes. Industrial ecology is a much better fit with the design process than environmental engineering, which — in its traditional sense — is about eliminating effluents, often after the design decisions and at the tail end of the production process. 

    See the International Society for Industrial Ecology website <http://www.is4ie.org/> and the Wikipedia article on life cycle assessment <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_cycle_assessment>. 

    A class exercise in industrial ecology might have you work out which is better — a paper bag or a plastic bag? (spoiler: choose your poison, both are bad, bring your own). I did an LCA (with a classmate from HP) on an inkjet printer — where we learned that the paper and electricity used over the life of the printer dwarf other impacts, so printer manufacturers should facilitate duplex printing and minimize power use. In an environmental engineering class, one test question asked how high a smokestack should be built to avoid exposing people to illegal levels of pollutants. That is important, too, but the product design engineer need not consider this directly. 

    “Green engineering” for lack of a better term does exist, but has not been supported (by universities/industry) as much as I think it needs to be. 

    Tom DiCorcia

  9. mike_at_DCA
    December 17, 2010

    Tom, thanks for reminding me of “Industrial Ecology”. I looked at it several years ago and need to revisit it. As I recall it's, again, pretty high level and broad but certainly more focused on assessing environmental impacts of products than typical environmental engineering programs.

    Michigan is a leader in this field, and I think it's a great area to study, but I think we also need to determine how to imbue environmental thinking throughout engineering and science fields as well. It should not be the sole domain of “experts” (but we need the experts to define and set up the systems and provide guidance). Just as every Electronics Engineer (EE) knows Ohm's Law, every EE should understand fundamentals of environmental parameters.

    My reading of Anastas' “Green Engineering” principles is that it's narrowly defined in the chemical engineering world, but could be applicable more widely. I agree it needs expansion and focus for our world of “articles”, and the infrastructure necessary to enable education on and implementation of the rules both in academia and industry.

  10. stochastic excursion
    December 17, 2010

    Engineers should take into account the long-term viability and environmental impact of materials they use.  I can see this taking strategic decisions away from management, though.  Traditionally managers want engineers to worry about a limited scope of whether material properties allow the product to do the job. 

    In industries where there are a lot of smaller, fast-moving players, people can wear many hats.  These industries tend to have companies with flatter hierarchies. 

    Industries where there are a lot of start-ups seem to be the ones that deal with innovation rather that a mature technology.  Where there's a lot of innovation, taking the long-term viability of sourcing and processing raw materials is appropriate.  As technology matures, companies that leverage economies of scale can benefit from this.

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