Text Size AAA Bookmark and Share

10xE: Rethinking Engineering, Both Pedagogy and Practice

By Cam Burns

There's a joke e-mail that seems to circulate on the Web every eight months or so. It includes images of outrageous design blunders, like a surveillance camera mounted behind and pointing at the back of the monitor it feeds. There's a picture of a faucet that's about six inches away from the sink into which the water should fall. There's another of a man using an automatic teller machine that's about nine feet above the ground.

All good for a laugh, but the truth is, bad design is more common than most of us realize. Bad engineering design, specifically, is simply wasteful. Poorly designed processes and systems gobble up energy and resources as if they were free or nearly free, and the inefficiency is generally invisible to most observers, including consumers who have to pay for the energy and resources.

Throughout the Institute's 27-year existence, RMI's staff has sought to influence the design, building, and retrofitting of power and industrial plants, commercial and residential buildings, and vehicles and transportation systems early in the development process so they're designed correctly upfront, eliminating costly late redesigns and inefficient creations.

One of the basic challenges our researchers run into, year after year, is that the people creating inefficient processes and systems are simply unaware they are doing so, and they don’t know how to do things differently. The reasons are many and complex, but often boil down to a few familiar parameters: assumed cost (e.g., capital resources, risk, reward, etc.), time (e.g., regulatory requirements, demand, etc.), tradition (e.g., what has worked before), and skills.

"Engineering schools don't specifically teach bad engineering design," notes Alok Pradhan, RMI's project manager for 10×E. "It's just that current engineering practice is very siloed and there's a lack of integration and whole-system consideration. Designs are typically optimized for the wrong parameters. That is, they will optimize the component individually, and the pieces—when they fit together—don't work that great as a system."
Several years ago, RMI kicked off a modest project to address these problems in engineering. Known around the Institute as Factor Ten Engineering (or 10×E for short, "ten times the efficiency"), this RMI initiative is fairly straightforward: the goal is to create a series of teaching tools that will help engineers design the things they design so that they use radically less energy and resources than they currently use to achieve the same goal or create the same product. These teaching materials—centered around a casebook of extremely efficient projects and systems—will be used to teach efficiency concepts and design to both engineering students and practitioners.

10×E has its genesis in the Factor Four notion put forth by Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins in their 1995 report to the Club of Rome, Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use. In the report, the authors argue that energy and resources can be used much more efficiently, to the tune of at least four times as efficient. "Factor Ten represents Amory Lovins's belief that we can do even better," notes Alok. "It might not necessarily be ten times the efficiency. It might be eight times or six times, but the basic premise of this project is to see, when these principles are applied, what's possible."

This year, the effort has gained some financial support and is picking up momentum.

"It's something we've been thinking about for a long time at RMI, but now, with Alok, we have a full-time project manager, a little seed money, and the momentum to move forward," notes Lionel Bony, who heads the Office of the Chief Scientist at RMI. "We are going from concept phase to implementation, which is very exciting."

A Different Kind of Engineering Ideal

The main focus of the 10×E project is the casebook. In it, RMI and the Institute's research partners (university engineering schools, engineering firms, and their customers) are assembling several dozen case-studies in which regular, dis-integrated engineering will be compared with highly efficient engineering design, laid out on facing pages so the reader can easily compare them and understand why the superefficient design typically costs less to build.

The cases themselves will span the range of engineering disciplines and main applications. More importantly, they’ll be chosen to illustrate and develop practical principles of design integration to achieve big energy and resource savings more cheaply.

"We do want to make these cases broad so they cover multiple disciplines, and, more importantly, demonstrate the whole-system considerations that have gone into the design," Alok notes.

A case study of a data center that is currently being developed is a good example of the types of projects the book will include, he says. Researchers will compare the superefficient data center design with a normal one.

"In that particular data center they managed to eliminate chillers, which is a huge energy savings; they made the computer code more efficient so the center didn't actually have to do as much computing; they removed extra load and unnecessary servers; they changed some of the electrical hardware to make the servers 'best in class'; and they retrofitted the buildings," Alok notes. "The project was made much more efficient in terms of at least three disciplines: mechanical, electrical, and civil engineering."

While the cases will compare efficient engineering projects with projects that weren't designed to be efficient, not all the comparisons will be parallel. With Amory Lovins's 1982 superefficient home in Snowmass, Colorado, for example, researchers plan to do some energy modeling and compare the building as it exists (including an elaborate data-monitoring system now being commissioned) to a hypothetical version of the building built simply to meet the local building code.

At present, RMI researchers are working with partners along the engineering value chain to refine how the casebook will come together during the next few months, with the possibility of a "summer study" in July or August, convening researchers for intensive collaboration over a two-week period. The book itself will likely be published in 2010.

"It's very important that we drive change as soon as possible," Lionel says. "The things we design now have a lifespan of anywhere between 15 and 20 years for a car and 50 and 100 years for a building. The more we wait, the longer it's going to take to have an impact."

Perhaps more important will be 10×E's influence on people. Some leading professors and practicing engineers are already using the term "brown engineering" for standard engineering practices, and engineering students who've been exposed to "green engineering" quickly become diehard advocates, helping to build momentum for superior design. Once these young engineers enter the marketplace, their very existence will help create further demand for green engineering.

"10×E will hopefully foster an entire generation of newly and better-educated students who will go on to do amazing things because they have been properly trained," notes Lionel. "This won't just change the built world around us; it'll change our fundamental relationships with both what we build and the Earth itself."

One interesting project related to 10×E is an effort by ABB engineer Robert Martinez, who recently took a sabbatical at RMI to complete a handbook on making fossil-fueled power plants more energy efficient. Robert focused his efforts not on the plants' primary fossil-fuel-driven generation but instead on the "auxiliaries," also known as the "balance of plant" systems (fans, pumps, etc.) because they actually run on the electricity generated at the plant and can gobble up a whopping 8 percent to 15 percent of the electricity produced. He was able to reconfigure typical auxiliaries to achieve a 6 percent energy improvement with a three-year payback. This may not sound like much, but such power plants emit about 41 percent of U.S. and 32 percent of global fossil carbon.

The book will be made available to ABB's roughly 15,000 engineers. ABB is the number one provider of electrical infrastructure (transformers, transmission and distribution equipment, metering equipment, etc.) on Earth and strongly influences the electric power industry. Additionally, Robert and his ABB colleagues are helping apply their book to a new coal plant proposed in the western United States.

"I think it [the handbook] will inspire changes in a lot of designs," Robert says.

Cam Burns is RMI's Senior Editor

--Published April 2009