The importance of engineer ethics

No matter how you feel about it or what others want or think, you either meet the spec or you don’t.

By Paul Studebaker, editor in chief

One day, when I was a young metallurgist in a magnet factory, we were testing a batch of critical parts to qualify them for shipment. The customer was very important and the order was urgent, so management was highly interested in getting the parts out the door.


The specification required that demagnetization curves on five parts show a minimum flux at a particular coercive force. Four of the parts were fine, but the fifth fell a line-width short of the specification.


As the engineer responsible for developing the new alloy, I was dismayed. The test was destructive, so it was statistically designed to ensure the batch would perform if the five parts passed. The destructive method also meant we couldn’t 100% test and sort the parts. I started arguing that, considering the criteria and the accuracy of the test, the results were good enough, and we could ship the parts.


At the time, we also produced rare-earth magnets for disk drives. One of the disk-drive companies had embedded a quality assurance engineer at our plant to watch over its interests. When this grizzly guy walked by and caught wind of what was going on, he took me aside.



“Look,” he said. “You’re the engineer. Your integrity is worth more to you than an order of magnets. It’s more important than any customer or boss, or even any job. You know those parts don’t meet the spec. So reject them.”


We become engineers in part because we like our facts in black and white—true or false, good or bad—without gray areas and subjectivity.

I was reminded of that incident by the news that Volkswagen had programmed some diesel cars to produce lower NOx during emissions testing, but higher levels in normal operation.


Imagine you are a VW engine systems engineer or engineering manager, charged with delivering amazing fuel economy with low emissions, and stymied by an NOx specification that forces your engine to be less efficient. Perhaps you know that NOx is seen by some as the opposite of a greenhouse gas—that it can help reduce atmospheric CO2. It breaks down relatively rapidly in the environment, so it’s only a health issue in congested areas where it reaches high concentrations. Maybe you think that even at 35-50 times the specified maximum, your millions of engines represent an infinitesimal and negligible percentage of global NOx emissions, overwhelmed by diesel power plants, ships, locomotives, heavy equipment and trucks that have been running 24/7 for decades and will still be running long after your cars have died and gone to crusher heaven. 


But there’s a specification, and your engines don’t meet it.


I wonder who first had the idea of running a different emissions program during the test. In our world of greed, financial meltdowns and political malfeasance, where any activity not both specifically prohibited and vigorously enforced is considered fair game, it’s no surprise that management might be willing to work around the law. But wouldn’t it take technical people to come up with the scheme?


If not—if it was the business people who first suggested cheating—it would still require engineers to say it could be done and implement it. Perhaps it came down to a small team, maybe one person, who finalized the code or put it in the engine control module. Would you be willing to manage that team or be that engineer?


We become engineers in part because we like our facts in black and white—true or false, good or bad—without gray areas and subjectivity that put the value of our work at the whims of others. In return for that simple value system, we have to live up to it.


I don’t recall how we handled the magnet customer, what we did to satisfy their needs or how much I disappointed the management team at the magnet factory, but I do remember that I rejected that batch, and many more over the years. No matter how you feel about it or what others want or think, you either meet the spec or you don’t.


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  • Good, thoughtful column. Some of us had to bend in order to survive, but in the end, if you have any character or ethics-you don't and you can't, because in the end, you have to live with YOURSELF, and it doesn't matter how much your pension is. You have to remember who you are and what you stand for. (I did-in the nick of time. Pissed off my last CO/XO, but they were both bastards, so who cares.)Walked out of USN with a few shreds of dignity intact, as well as a gag reflex!) The best comment on this that I ever heard was from the actress Irene Worth at my sister's graduation from Tufts: "Remember, that everyone who sells themselves, wants to buy themselves back!" (And they can't.)


  • Pretty good article. However we have to look at the dark side. Why are we talking about this in this day and age. We went through this in the 50's and 60's and management took a turn for the better. They started listening to the engineers and even to some of the HR people (heaven forbid).Ethics became a standard, Insurance rates went down in industry, quality of products in the U.S. were the basis of standards, worldwide. We were envied and selling a project with the latest and greatest of technologies could be had by anyone with a business card. Then what happened? I'm sorry to say the Harvard MBA program came into being and bottom line management took over every company and boardroom. Anyone with acreditation of an MBA was brought in to a company, not at a management level, but at an executive level and started showing the beancounters how it could all be done cheaper and on-time delivery, man the helm-full speed ahead. Then if the cheapest became questionable from an engineering point of view you might be told to prove it with no theory but studies and in black and white. If not you were required to sign on the dotted line. You, not the MBA or the bean counter, if you wanted to continue employment, or get a nasty in the evaluation, demoted, sent to the farm. This didn't happen to me but I saw it happen to a lot of others and the guy or girl that did sign on the dotted line have since been promoted and now retired with a big fat pension. The ones that wouldn't are still working at 65 plus with only SS to think about or blackballed in the industry and taking out loans to get his kids through college and fighting the government quotas for minorities or foreign students with U.S. State Dept. grants. What a life it has turned out to be. But I sleep at night and can look at the mirror and say good job and look down at the un-ethicals with a smile. There is a lot of this still going on and I credit those that have voted to eliminate our capability to bargain collectively, and yes, I am talking about the destruction of the Unions that protected safety in design, manufacturing, training and ethics, and flight controllers.


  • Thank you,as you have acted as an Engineer with right ethics. Ethics: At a high level of the abstraction,summarizes aspirations which change the way we act as engineering professionals. Without the aspirations, the details can become legalistic and tedious; without the details, the aspirations can become high sounding but empty; together, the aspirations and the details form a cohesive code.and in soceity we must make codes and adhere to practice without compromise, but flexible to take risks to the extent of ALARP(As Low As Reasonably Practiceble). Engineers should commit themselves to making the analysis, specification, design, development, testing and maintenance of object a beneficial and respected profession. In accordance with their commitment to the health, safety and welfare of the public, Engineers should adhere to the following Principles: 1. PUBLIC - Engineers shall act consistently with the public interest. 2. CLIENT AND EMPLOYER - Engineers shall act in a manner that is in the best interests of their client and employer consistent with the public interest. 3. PRODUCT - Engineers shall ensure that their products and related modifications meet the highest professional standards possible. 4. JUDGMENT - Engineers shall maintain integrity and independence in their professional judgment. 5. MANAGEMENT -Engineering managers and leaders shall subscribe to and promote an ethical approach to the management of systems(Objects>Components) development and maintenance. 6. PROFESSION - Engineers shall advance the integrity and reputation of the profession consistent with the public interest. 7. COLLEAGUES - Engineers shall be fair to and supportive of their colleagues. 8. SELF - Engineers shall participate in lifelong learning regarding the practice of their profession and shall promote an ethical approach to the practice of the profession. Thanks!


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