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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