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Somebody else's problem

Posted: 18 Jul 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:douglas adams? sep? environment? health? safety?

The late Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, uncovered an important environmental principlethe Somebody Else's problem Field (SEP), a fictional technology that can make something "virtually invisible" simply by making it look like somebody else's problem.

I suspect that the electronics industry's environmental issues have been lurking under an SEP field. While issues like toxic content, energy consumption, waste reduction and product recycling have been identified since at least the mid-1990s, little has been done. Everyone is concerned about the environment, worried about their children's future and understands that something has to be done. Unfortunately, nobody has been doing anything about it because it was always somebody else's problem.

Managers and executives in most companies thought environmental concerns were not their problem because environmental, health and safety (EH&S) departments handled those issues. EH&S people were glad to clean up the mess created by manufacturing, but wished that engineering would avoid creating the problem in the first place.

When I suggested that designers use green principles to re-engineer processes and products, everyone thought it was a great idea, but they were under orders to keep costs as their priority.

Thankfully, I see a break in the SEP cycle. Forward-thinking companies are now talking about adopting environmental performance strategies as competitive tools to make their operations more profitable.

Engineers and managers are re-engineering their record-keeping and reporting structures to track environmental performance. This lets them monitor their suppliers to ensure that materials and processes that went into their subassemblies have met critical green requirements. As product take-back and recycling programs take hold, these accurate materials declarations will be the key to making them financially viable.

Once these tools are in place, they help to move more subtle issues out from under the SEP veil. Expanding the standard materials declarations to include figures of merit for the manufacturer's energy and materials efficiency is one move. Besides letting a buyer measure the required resources to make a product, such standardized figures would shed light on hidden manufacturing costs.

Getting control of the supply chain is a great start toward making the environment an integral part of the business equation, but there's more to the story.

- Lee Goldberg

EE Times

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