Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Ethics in Mechanical Engineering

The old saying, "treat others how you would like to be treated," is a good basic ethical guideline we teach to children; however, I believe ethics is a much deeper subject up to debate. When I think of ethics, I consider how my actions affect those around me. We all have plenty of issues we have no control over in our lives, so why should I be an additional contributing factor to all the misery? My ethical approach to life is to try my best to avoid causing unnecessary harm, discrimination or unfairness to anyone. Hopefully, these good intentions are contagious, and the world at large can become a slightly better place to live in. While these ethics govern my day to day behavior, there are naturally more specific things to consider with more specific areas of my life. For example, my desired future career is more complicated when it comes to the ethics. Mechanical engineering entails science, design, and heavy machinery. Both science and the design process go hand in hand in mechanical engineering. A mechanical engineer, or M.E. for short, must always consider how a part or product would behave under certain conditions. For example, how tough does a part need to be? What material should I use to accomplish the required toughness? As a result, a given design is built around scientific analysis involving physics and materials. Once the design plans are finalized, fabrication and prototyping may begin. The physical creation of parts would require proficiency in heavy machining. some of this heavy machinery includes mills, lathes, band saws, and CNC machining. Overall, M.E.s transform ideas into marketable products; as a result, they are obligated to abide by many ethical standards aimed to keep both the workplace and society safe.

Ethics in the Workshop
Row of Mills and M.E.s
Because mechanical engineering utilizes potentially dangerous heavy machinery, an M.E. must consider the ethics of operating these machines even if it means slower production and more cost. As huge metal behemoths capable of tearing humans apart, heavy machinery should never be used in a hurry. A mill, for example, is used to cut away metal from a piece of metal stock, thus shaping the metal into a part. Some mills, such as the manual mills in the image to the left, have no barrier between the worker and the danger zone. If an end mill spinning at hundreds of revolutions per minute can cut metal apart, it will find no trouble in fatally injuring a person, especially if there is nothing but air to separate it from this person. Therefore, each move should be carefully considered when working with mills. While the more careful route is rarely the quicker one, spending the extra time and money is well worth the price when compared to injury and death. In other words, an M.E. supervisor's ethics surrounding the use of heavy machinery should prioritize the safety of the operator over money or a deadline.
Ethics in the Market
Recalled Dora The Explorer Toy [1]
We can also see the relationship between money and safety when it comes to what engineers create, and M.E.s must always choose safety over money in order to keep those who use these creations safe. Chinese toy manufacturing is a perfect anti example of this principle. In a report titled, "China Product Recalls: What's at Stake and What's Next," Lucy P. Allen and her colleagues state that 98 percent of all toy recalls in the United States during 2007 were caused by Chinese toy manufacturers [2]. Among many hazards, the use of lead paint was the most common and made a total of 30 percent of all Chinese toy recalls [2]. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why lead is bad to have in our children's toys; unfortunately, this was not enough to prevent some Chinese toy companies from using lead paint. Providing clarity to the situation, James Mitchell Crow, in his article, "Why Use Lead in Paint?" explains that while paint containing lead is toxic, it is also cheaper than the safer titanium dioxide option [3]. These Chinese Toy manufacturers obviously chose to save money and risk the lives of children, resulting in the ridiculously large toy recalls. Although M.E.s need to design products to make money for themselves, extra money does not justify sacrificing the safety of mankind. Admiral Hyman Rickover once said, "as a guide to engineering ethics, I should like to commend to you a liberal adaptation of the injunction contained in the oath of Hippocrates that the professional man do nothing that will harm his client" [4]. In context with these Chinese toy recalls, Rickover's ethical argument is even stronger as these toy manufacturer's clients are children. No human with any sense of ethics has to ask him or herself why no harm is to come to children.
Product Testing and Quality Control

1980s Ford Capri S Coupe
Sometimes, it is not money that is the problem but a lack of appropriate testing and quality control. A part might work perfectly in theory and design, but the same part is still vulnerable to flaws in the manufacturing process. These are unforeseen issues rather than planned compromises. During the 1980's, Ford recalled all of its models manufactured between 1976 and 1980, estimated to be around 21 million vehicles [5]. Apparently, a faulty safety catch caused these cars to sometimes shift from park to reverse without warning [5]. states that this recall resulted in "more than 6000 accidents, 1700 injuries, and 98 deaths" [5]. As one of the worst automobile recalls in history, this Ford recall teaches us how crucial it is for manufacturers and mechanical engineers to thoroughly test their products. While one could argue that Ford did in fact thoroughly test these safety catches, their failure to catch this flaw still illustrates the importance of testing and quality control. Mechanical engineers are therefore ethically responsible for making sure they do everything in their power to have absolute confidence in the safety of their product.

The Ethical Gray Area

Ford Safety Warning Label [6]
So far, I have painted mechanical engineering ethics as an obvious concept; however, the "correct" ethical choice may not be as obvious. Revisiting the Ford recall, it was reported to cost the company 1.7 billion dollars [5]. Keeping in mind that 1.7 billion was a lot more back then than it is now due to inflation, it is surprising how Ford was able to survive such a financial catastrophe. Murilee Martin, writer for, explains how Ford stayed afloat by mailing out safety warning labels, such as the one pictured above, to all ford car owners affected by the recall [6]. Rather than fixing each and every faulty catch in all 21 million vehicles, Ford chose this less expensive route. Based on what is previously discussed in this blog, the less expensive route is associated with a lack of ethics and safety. In contrast, repairing every vehicle would have been more safe, but it would have also likely destroyed Ford as a company as a result of the insurmountable cost, putting many employees out of work. Sometimes, the damage is already done and no choice is perfect. Which is more ethical: Ensuring the safety of all drivers of recalled vehicles, or ensuring the jobs of all the employees? 


Edited 10-11-17, 9:13 am
All editing is based off of partner's comment.
Edit Notes:

  • Included personal definition of ethics
  • Elaborated on Ethics in the Workshop
  • Elaborated on Ethics in the Market
    • Note: Did not further elaborate my own opinion on the Ethical Gray Area on purpose. Wanted to let readers come up with their own opinions on ethics.
  • Reworded second paragraph topic sentence optimizing flow and readability
    • Note: I kept the word, "because," in the beginning of the sentence because (haha) there is nothing inherently wrong with it. While I could have easily replaced it with "since" or "due to the fact that," I prefer "because." 

1 comment:

  1. The blog is really good it gives great examples of ethics in the work area, the market, and in product testing. The examples are also very interesting to me the reader because I can relate to the cheap toys and the automobiles. The only thing I think you can add if you want is giving your own opinion on why some of the examples are unethical. Also if you add your own definition of what you think ethics means. I think it would give the reader a sense of your personality and where you stand in ethics. One last thing in the second paragraph the topic sentence would be better if you rephrase it without starting with because.