With new technologies like AI augmenting product development, engineers will face more ethical decisions than ever before.

How to Make Ethical Decisions in Engineering

Aug 31, 2021

by Mark Crawford

You may think the field of engineering doesn’t lend itself to philosophical questioning. The truth is, engineers and philosophers alike need to ponder the ethical implications of new technologies like artificial intelligence and 3D printing.

A variety of challenges face the design engineer at a corporation that designs, manufactures, and distributes innovative consumer products worldwide. Many safety-critical decisions arise in the normal course of engineering design that may have to be answered through the application of ethics. For an up-to-date look at the relationships between engineering ethics, product design, and product-safety engineering, ASME.org interviewed P.E. Kenneth L. d’Entremont, associate professor and lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and author of the new book Engineering Ethics and Design for Product Safety (McGraw Hill, 2021).

Q1: What are the ethical responsibilities of engineers today? Has this changed over the last few years?

Kenneth d’Entremont: Today’s engineers really have the same responsibilities that prior generations of engineers have had. These are distilled down by the ASME into its “Code of Ethics for Engineers.” The first Fundamental Canon is “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of their professional duties.”

The current pace of engineering is such that more and more work is asked of engineers over a shorter time period than ever before. Competitive pressures and the practice of Lean have further increased the workload of engineers in the corporation. This trend shows no signs of lessening.

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A result of all this is that engineers are now faced with designing and developing more products with new, untried features and higher performance levels than ever before and having to do so within a time schedule unforgiving to design setbacks such as necessary redesigns. Thus, engineers will face more ethical decisions than ever before.

Q2: What is the connection between engineering ethics, product design, and product-safety engineering?

K.E: In product design—especially with innovative, new products—there will likely be little to guide the design engineer regarding an acceptable level of safety. If a company is designing all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), for instance, the existence of decades of prior ATVs helps the engineer assess the new product’s safety. So long as the new ATV is as safe, or safer, than prior ATVs, then the design is probably sufficient, although that engineer should not neglect further design changes that could improve user safety.

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Most engineers understand the need to provide safety to product users and wish to meet those needs. Innovative products are frequently 10 years ahead of any industry standard or regulation. Designers, therefore, are “working without a net.” They must depend upon their engineering judgement and ethics, and those of coworkers, to direct their product design.

Ultimately, the ethical engineer will satisfy her/himself that the product is sufficiently safe. A product cannot be absolutely safe, but products can be safe when used by responsible people in their intended manners. Although misuse should be considered by design engineers, the fact that some new products have no history of use makes the consideration of misuse quite difficult. 

Q3: How does product-safety engineering differ from other areas of engineering? 

K.E: Although several aspects of engineering-design projects have objective criteria—speed, weight, size, output—there will be hard-to-quantify aspects of the final design that may not be explicit. Product safety is often one of them. The project-management team may presume that product safety will be sufficient without providing pass-fail criteria to design engineers. Even when consensus can be reached within the engineering team, there may be significant disagreement with consumer advocates and regulators. This should be expected since the final assessment of safety depends upon value systems, not upon science. Because value systems are different, separate groups of people will arrive at differing levels of safety sufficiency.

Q4: What are the biggest challenges facing MEs today regarding engineering ethics and product safety?

K.E: A primary challenge for mechanical design engineers is the pace at which innovative products are being introduced. On top of that, the competition is fierce so that development cycles are incredibly short, so more has to be accomplished in less time. The modern consumer has likewise been evolving and is smarter than ever, as well as much more demanding.

Engineers and engineering teams are faced with incredible technological challenges with schedules that might limit development and testing time prior to the necessary ship date. All must go according to plan. Any setback can seriously impact meeting an aggressive business plan.

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Practicing engineers may be faced with deciding between a business goal and an ethical obligation if a product is not ready for shipment. In times such as this, engineering management may decide to ship a product anyway or evolve into engineering leadership and postpone shipment despite the “blowback” from executives responsible for profit and loss—not product safety.

Another issue that could cloud the practice of product-safety engineering is the concept of product liability. Even attorneys struggle with product-liability practice. The engineer has no chance whatsoever. The guidance I would give to engineers about product liability is to ignore it and focus on designing and manufacturing the safest of products. Nothing can prevent a company from being sued for its products. Whether or not a company is sued is not importan; what is important is whether or not anyone gets injured. Engineers should focus attention on this. 

Q5: How do you know when you have designed enough safety into a product? Can you have “overkill?”

K.E: Yes, it is possible to design-in too much safety. If this happens, the proper function of the product is negatively affected. Either the product no longer performs its intended function, or the user/operator of the product must now use the product is a less-safe manner—perhaps pressing down harder on the product during use or holding the product incorrectly to achieve the same effect. There must be a balance—or equilibrium—between product function and product safety. 

Of course, it can be difficult to determine that balance point, especially with innovative, new products which have never before existed. There will be no prior database of what has been acceptable by users. Competitor products do not exist for benchmarking. Lacking explicit design guidance in the forms of prior art, standards, regulations, and competitive benchmarks, design engineers are left to depend upon their professional ethics to decide what constitutes a safe product.

Mark Crawford is a technology writer based in Corrales, N.M.

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