Engineers worldwide are collaborating on community projects to share ideas and encourage more sustainable product design.
What motivates engineering organisations to adopt more sustainable design? At a headline level, mega-factors such as the climate crisis and resource depletion provide compelling reasons to reduce the environmental impact of all industrial and consumer products.
But more prosaic reasons also come into play, with sustainable design delivering business benefits in several tangible ways. Firstly, it can challenge conventional thinking, resulting in new approaches that can increase efficiencies and reduce costs. It also provides an impetus for innovation, potentially opening new markets, business models and revenue streams. And more sustainable organisations often have greater staff satisfaction and better retention levels, with many younger engineers wanting to work for companies that can prove their environmental credentials.
Encouraging creative thinking
But how does a company kickstart a more sustainable design culture? The first step on the journey is to encourage creative thinking inside an organisation. This process can be easier said than done when strategies and approaches to product development have become ingrained over time and become hard to change. However, embracing sustainability involves unlocking the space for critical reflection on 'business as usual', which requires giving engineers the time, space, skills and encouragement they need.
"Any good creative process has some level of chaos within it – it is rarely a linear journey," says Emma Crichton, Head of Engineering at Engineers Without Borders UK, a charity which aims to put global responsibility at the heart of engineering.
"Product development is complex and fast-paced, but often companies need to take a step back and give their people the time to self-educate, develop new competencies and question the norm. It is unlikely that traditional practices and processes will work effectively in creating more sustainable and equitable outcomes. People need time and space to come together and think creatively."
For Engineers Without Borders UK, sustainable outcomes are more likely to be delivered through more diverse teams. "Having the right blend of skills and backgrounds is critically important," says Emma Crichton. "Teams work better when they have a mix of technical, interpersonal and broader skills than typically valued in practice. Product design and development teams need to include advocates, facilitators and systems thinkers and to have people with a good understanding of social equity and ecological sustainability. If you have all those kinds of people on a team, imagine what that group could start to create."
Community projects make a mark
Indeed, at RS, the power of diverse teams from different backgrounds has been illustrated on various projects to drive innovation and improve the world around us. For example, employees from across the organisation have volunteered several hundred hours of their time to assist with The Washing Machine Project Foundation - a global charity that combines innovation and sustainable engineering to provide displaced and low-income communities with an accessible, affordable off-grid washing solution. Technical and non-technical staff have provided the charity with expertise in critical areas, such as sourcing manufacturing and logistics solutions to enable machines to be deployed in Africa, India, and South America.
RS has matched employees' individual efforts by supplying parts for the construction of Divya 1.5, the latest version of the manual-crank washing machine. The Divya is easy to maintain, requires no electricity, and uses 50% less water than handwashing, reducing the time spent on this backbreaking task by 75%. This enables women and girls who typically spend upwards of 20 hours per week washing in rivers and lakes to access work and education.
There are plenty of other examples of collaborative working within the engineering community that lead to more sustainable thinking. The RS DesignSpark #ActivistEngineering global initiative, launched last year, was set up to inspire engineers to put engineering responsibility at the heart of their product designs while also using their skills to positively impact the lives of people and the planet. The programme brings engineers together to help them solve specific problems and think about how products can fit harmoniously into the environment with minimum disruption or degradation of natural ecosystems.
One of the first projects under the #ActivistEngineering banner was a collaborative ''citizen science" effort to tackle poor air quality. The Air Quality project sought to address the challenges of rising air pollution, mainly indoor pollution caused by airborne particles, household odours and gases, carbon dioxide, and more. The project aims to unite the more than one million members of the DesignSpark engineering community to build and deploy a global network of portable indoor air quality monitors for the home, workplace, or other public indoor spaces and share the data collected back to the community.
To support the project, DesignSpark collaborated with various partners to develop a cloud-enabled open-source prototyping platform – The DesignSpark Environmental Sensor Development Kit, using free CAD and code available on GitHub. The kit consists of open-source hardware and code and has a set of sensor modules that plug into a Raspberry Pi single-board computer with a touchscreen, wirelessly connecting to the cloud.
Over the year, the Air Quality project has resulted in many innovative ideas from the DesignSpark community, exploring unusual ways to monitor or improve air quality. These include the Good Air Canary sensor, which detects too much CO2 in the workplace, and the Dream Lantern, which monitors air quality during periods of sleep for chemicals such as volatile organic compounds and automatically opens and closes the bedroom window to balance health and comfort.
Imagining a more sustainable future
The washing machine and air quality projects provide tangible examples of how global partnerships and collaborations can provide sustainable solutions for a better world. These relationships are essential facets of RS's environmental, social and governance objectives, which include supporting 1.5 million engineers and innovators via education, investment and volunteering projects to improve lives.
"As engineers, we are responsible for designing products and selecting the components we use and how they are designed," says Andrea Barrett, VP of Social Responsibility and Sustainability. "Programmes such as #ActivistEngineering commits engineers to step back and ask how they can create engineering outcomes that positively impact the world around us. They can help educate, influence, promote and enable engineering responsibility to all generations of engineers worldwide.
"Ultimately, we are responsible for thinking and designing more sustainably and being mindful of the products and materials we choose to design with and the design practice we adopt to use them. We can experiment and push new methods and technologies that help drive more responsible design."
Such efforts also support STEM initiatives to inspire the next generation of engineers. "A commitment to sustainability can also make an organisation more attractive to the future workforce," concludes Andrea Barrett. "Graduates and younger engineers have lived most of their lives against the backdrop of the climate crisis. Sustainability is becoming a valuable recruitment tool for the brightest talent amid global skill shortages."
By Andrea Barrett, VP of Social Responsibility and Sustainability at RS Group