By any measure, engineering is a broad discipline. To the casual observer, the roles of a civil, mechanical, electrical, or chemical engineer might seem different, and they are, but there is a common path that all engineers tread. Engineers seek to solve problems by designing, building and implementing engineering products and services that make our lives and our work function in better ways. And, in an increasingly environmentally-conscious world, the concept of sustainability is also intrinsically important to the success or failure of any engineering project.
As an adjunct instructor in CU Boulder's Engineering Management Program, Anne Wrobetz is perfectly placed at the juncture where engineering meets business and environmental sustainability. Wrobetz’s educational credentials—a minor in economics and a master’s degree in environmental engineering—complement her lifelong passion for the environment.
What is Engineering Management?
“Engineering management is the integration of engineering and business,” says Wrobetz. “So we are talking about how to make engineering work in the financial sector, how to make engineering make sense in terms of profit, and how to determine which projects to pursue based on how economically viable they are.”
Wrobetz explains that engineering management is the unseen catalyst behind the success or failure of all engineering projects.
“We can theoretically design anything,” says Wrobetz. “But if it doesn't make financial sense and if there is not a market for it, it's not going to work in the real world and it’s not going to have an impact.”
According to Wrobetz, this is an important concept to grasp for any engineer who has an aspiration to succeed as an entrepreneur.
“Acquiring skills in engineering management is important because a lot of engineers want to be entrepreneurs but they aren't necessarily given the tools in the traditional engineering curriculum to become savvy business people,” says Wrobetz. “It’s vital that they learn all of the technical skills that they need to build and optimize those really exciting products and services—but bridging that gap between engineering and business is also vital because if something isn't financially viable, it doesn't matter how well designed it is.”
What is Sustainability?
The concept of sustainability is critically important to every engineering project, and increasingly so every day.
“Engineering has always impacted the environment,” says Wrobetz. “But people are just starting to recognize that we also might have some sort of responsibility in the engineering projects we are taking on and how they impact the wider environment.”
Sustainability isn’t just about protecting the environment. It’s very much becoming a focal point where companies balance commercial opportunities against financial risk.
“Think about climate change and the risks that it presents to an engineering business in the long term,” says Wrobetz. “First of all, if a lot of people are majorly impacted economically by climate change, then the economy as a whole will suffer. So the more that we can do to prevent that, the more long term we can guarantee that our cash flows will remain positive and that we'll be able to continue as a profitable company.” And, increasingly, sustainability is becoming an issue with immense global impact. In fact, for the first time ever, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) cites climate change as one of the biggest obstacles to world economic growth—bigger even than the threat of potential recession.
A Consumer-Led Revolution
More and more, consumers are flexing their economic muscle when it comes to sustainability issues that concern them. Consumers are increasingly asking questions about how raw materials are sourced and products are manufactured. This requires “ethically-minded” companies to put sustainability at the very heart of their supply chain management.
“In today's society, we have a constant supply of information about how companies are managed, how they treat their employees, their wider supply chain, and how our products are made,” says Wrobetz. “This presents a really unique set of challenges to companies. They have to take things into consideration that perhaps people weren't paying attention to before. So companies have to be a little bit more sustainable and a little bit more ethical. A lot of consumers will not buy a product once they realize that it is unethically made—that’s a huge risk to the cash flow projections of a company. So if they want to be making money, they have to start thinking about these things, otherwise, their consumer base is going to disappear.”
Opportunities in Sustainable Business Practices
Wrobetz is quick to point out that adopting sustainable business practices isn’t just a smart marketing move to bolster consumer confidence. It can also significantly add to a company’s bottom line by helping reduce costs.
Wrobetz highlights an initiative by the computer manufacturer Dell to harvest plastics from the world’s oceans and recycle them into shipping materials. This has not only helped to reduce the amount of plastic waste polluting our oceans, threatening marine life and potentially entering the human food chain, it also has helped Dell significantly reduce their raw plastics costs.
“It's positive for Dell,” says Wrobetz. “They've had to make this initial upfront investment but over the long run they are saving a lot of money and they are becoming recognized as an industry leader in the field of sustainable business. They are making all of this information available to other companies in an effort to get them to also start thinking about where their plastics come from and how they can change their supply chain and really leverage these new ideas. It sets them apart from their competitors and gives them a competitive advantage.”
The sportswear manufacturer Puma is another company Wrobetz highlights as investing in sustainable business practices, adopting environmental profit and loss analysis (E-P&L) across its entire manufacturing operation. E-P&L analysis measures the environmental footprint of a company's operations including how they source their raw materials. As a tool, E-P&L is used to build awareness of the importance of the environment to the sustainability of a business.
“Puma identified that the biggest changes that they could make were with their tier-1 suppliers,” says Wrobetz. “These are the companies producing the raw materials that go into their shoes like rubber or cotton. By identifying where they first needed to make improvements, they are able to start making small changes.”
A Long Term Bet
Wrobetz cites the automotive industry as a way of illustrating how a very traditional industry is embracing the sustainability challenge and looking towards the future.
“It's a long term bet,” says Wrobetz. “A lot of vehicle manufacturers are getting more involved in the electric space and I think it makes a lot of sense for them to be making these renovations to their commercial product line. Consumers are willing to pay more for a product like an electric vehicle that they know has a lower carbon footprint. It might just make them feel good about themselves. It might reduce their overall fuel bill in the future. We are seeing these market trends, people are increasingly investing in sustainability.”
Early investors in sustainable technology are only now beginning to see their investments paying off, with consumers rewarded with increased infrastructure to support their purchases and manufacturers seeing increased sales.
“You'll always have the early investors in new technology who are excited about something new and they'll invest upfront,” says Wrobetz. “Then when the price starts to fall, you start to see more of that sea change where people have seen that a product is proven. I think a lot of people are somewhat risk-averse. People are worried that they are making a downgrade in their life by making those switches when in reality, it represents a really good opportunity. We need to reach a certain threshold of early investors to prove the market. When that point is reached, more and more people will make the switch.”
The Pace of Change
If change doesn’t always occur at a rapid pace, it is coming with a steady cadence. “By and large many companies are taking at least some steps forward,” says Wrobetz. “Companies are looking into their whole system, whether that's their supply chain management, their manufacturing operations, or looking at just their office building—things like energy consumption and water usage. They are identifying hot spots.”
Other companies might be worried about the indirect costs their business might incur through a lack of planning around environmental factors.
“You can think about risk in terms of impacting public health, or impacting the environment and then getting fined for that,” says Wrobetz. “Many companies are beginning to see value in implementing sustainable practices now in order to prevent future public relations issues or the financial impact of fines from the Environmental Protection Agency or other local environmental bodies.”
This doesn’t mean that change comes easy to all organizations.
“I think in a lot of traditional engineering management environments there is this idea of inertia,” says Wrobetz. “It takes a long time to make substantial changes because a lot of people are content to carry forward with the way things are and don’t really see the point of making waves.”
Proponents of sustainable business practices may also have to face a degree of skepticism from some quarters.
“There's some hesitation with people concerned that we don't need to make as big a change as some sustainably-minded folks are saying,” says Wrobetz. “They worry that it would represent a major impact on the financial bottom line of their companies to make more of these investments in sustainability. I think they just haven't gotten the real message about sustainability—which really boils down to risk reduction for a company.”
For those individuals who haven’t quite got the message yet about the benefits of operating a more sustainable business, Wrobetz has a secret weapon on her side.
The Greta Thunberg Effect
Wrobetz is a big fan of the teenage environmental activist, Greta Thunberg.
“It's interesting to talk about someone like Greta, especially here in Boulder, Colorado,” says Wrobetz. “It’s sort of a bubble of a community. People here in Boulder are typically very sustainably-minded—so pretty much everyone just loves her here.”
However, it’s Thunberg’s doubters who really inspire Wrobetz to do more to promote sustainability.
“You see some of the news about people who think she should just quiet down because she's only 16-years-old and what does she know about the world?” says Wrobetz. “I think that sort of discourse in the people who are doubting her drives a lot of the people like me who really believe in the message she's spreading.”
Wrobetz understands completely where Thunberg’s passion for change comes from.
“She believes that her generation is going to suffer the effects of climate change more so than the past generation and so they have every right to be upset about it,” says Wrobetz. “Nothing will change unless we're uncomfortable with the current situation. It is vital that we have people like her, especially young people, who are able to change people’s minds as we move forward into the future.”
Wrobetz feels that Thunberg is inspiring people who would not have previously considered a career in engineering to enter the field.
“A lot of young people see the opportunities of renewable and sustainable technologies and become really intrigued by the concept that we are on the verge of a changing world,” says Wrobetz. “Either we make the change into sustainability or we make the change into climate change. I think a lot of young people especially have been faced with this sort of dilemma since they were born and they see engineering as a real big opportunity to change the world for the better, ensuring long term resiliency.”
Engineering is proving a particularly popular career choice with young people from areas already experiencing the negative impact of climate change.
“We are seeing a lot of young people from disadvantaged communities entering engineering,” says Wrobetz. “This is because they are seeing first-hand some of the challenges that their communities face with changes to the environment and they want to make a difference. Every engineer gets into engineering for a slightly different reason but a lot of engineers get into engineering because they want to help people or they want to be at the cutting edge of technology that's going to change the world.”
The availability of online degree and certificate programs is just one way that CU Boulder EMP is helping students from a more diverse background attend classes and receive a high-quality education.
“The online classes which run alongside our more traditional on-campus programs have allowed us to reach a lot of people who would not normally be able to attend classes due to work or family commitments,” says Wrobetz. "For those currently working in the field of engineering, this is very beneficial because they can bring the real-world problems that they experience in their jobs into class and think about actual feasible solutions.”
To learn more about programs in engineering management from CU Boulder, visit the Engineering Management Program page on our website.