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Engineering Ethics for “Industrial Consultants”

Engineering is a profession that directly impacts all members of society. Engineers

design highways, bridges, buildings, machines, equipment, manufacturing facilities, chemical processing plants, refineries, etc. Engineers have touched the products we use on a daily basis and have a vital impact on our quality of life. Professional engineering licensure in the U.S. requires meeting a basic combination of educational, experience and testing requirements.

To uphold and advance the integrity of the engineering profession, a code of Engineering Ethics has been adopted by most engineering professional societies. The general principles of the code of ethics for various engineering societies are quite similar. The fundamental rules of engineering ethics in accordance with the National Society of Professional Engineers are:

Fundamental Canons1 Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall: Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public.

  • Perform services only in the areas of their competence.

  • Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

  • Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.

  • Avoid deceptive acts.

  • Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

For consulting engineers, Engineering Ethics is a thoroughly researched and published subject. The code of ethics is, and should be, a driving force in how engineers approach their work. In the US, engineers practicing independently as consulting engineers are required to be professionally licensed. In contrast, engineers working in industry, education and often government need not be professionally licensed. As mentioned above, professional engineering societies have adopted relatively uniform codes of ethics. However, technical societies have often not adopted these codes. Therefore, there is a dichotomy in industry as to who is to be held in the highest regard; the public or the employer.

A specific group of consulting engineers that works as contractors for industry to help develop and design new processes and manufacturing facilities appears to lie between independent consulting engineers and industry engineers. I will call this group “industrial consultants”. This is a group in the engineering community that is challenged to uphold the code of ethics established for the profession while also providing cost effective solutions for their clients.

With safety at the forefront, industrial consultants must balance design costs, total installed cost, operational efficiency, maintenance costs, technology changes, client capital budget constraints, etc. for their clients with profitability for their firm. The line between doing what is best for the client vs. what is best for the firm is blurred. I suggest that Fundamental Canon #4 above may be more accurately stated as: “Engineers … shall act for each employer or and client as faithful agents or trustees.”

Following are examples of situations where industrial consultants are faced with choices that are ethically ambiguous. The examples are based loosely on actual situations previously encountered.

Example 1 – Potential Win-Win-Win

Background: A full-service design contractor with engineer-procure-construct capabilities (EPCorp) has had a long-term business relationship with owner-operator manufacturing company (OOM). OOM has a regional processing plant close to the EPCorp offices. EPCorp had designed and built the original plant over 30 years ago, and continues to provide design and construction support to the plant.

Situation: OOM planned to demolish and replace a process unit at the regional plant. Corporate OOM performed some preliminary studies that showed replacing the process unit will meet corporate financial hurdles. Therefore, the cost of replacing the unit was included in OOM’s long-term capital plans. To move forward on approval of the capital project investment, corporate OOM requested an engineering study be performed to confirm the replacement was required.

OOM’s plant manager, John, discussed the project with EPCorp’s engineering manager, Bill. John let Bill know that the project was backed by both corporate and regional OOM leaders. He also informed Bill of the fact that a simple engineering study stating the process unit should be replaced would result in authorization of the project, and he would have OOM procurement send EPCorp a request to perform the study.

Upon receipt of the request from OOM, Bill called EPCorp corporate leaders together to discuss EPCorp’s approach. EPCorp leaders were very excited about this project. The plant was old, and a study to confirm the need to replace the process unit would be easy to complete. Also, the probability of EPCorp winning the engineer-procure-construct contract for the project would be very high. Bill views this as a win-win-win situation. OOM corporate wins, OOM regional wins and EPCorp wins.

Bill pulled his engineering team together to prepare the study and discovered that two of the design team members believed the process unit could “possibly” be upgraded and operate effectively for several more years, and replacement may not be the best solution. These engineers believed an extensive study should be performed. Although Bill respected these engineers’ technical abilities, he was also aware that they often “over-analyzed” assignments.

What should Bill do?

Example 2 – Warehouse Foundations

Background: Same as example 1.

Situation: OOM planned to build two new identical warehouses at their regional processing facility. The warehouses would be pre-engineered structures. OOM issued two separate RFP’s for the foundation design for each warehouse.

EPCorp won one of the foundation design contracts. EPCorp had designed several process units and process buildings at the site over the past 30 years. The geotechnical reports for process units constructed over the years have recommended pile foundations. EPCorp had extensive foundation details in their CAD design vault from previous projects at the OOM plant. To save design time and costs, EPCorp did not have a geotechnical study performed and used existing design details. The design was completed ahead of schedule and under budget.

Another firm, XYZinc won the other foundation design contract. This was XYZinc’s first project for OOM. XYZinc was given access to the previous geotechnical reports, but believed a new study was warranted since a warehouse has much smaller soil bearing loads that a process building. The geotechnical study recommended spread footing foundations for the warehouse. XYZinc prepared the design documents using spread footings. The design was completed one month late and 10% over budget.

Although EPCorp’s design was completed at a lower cost than XYZinc’s design, the total installed cost (TIC) for the “EPCorp” warehouse was 10% higher than the TIC for the “XYZinc” warehouse due to the use of pile foundations.

Did EPCorp uphold Engineering Ethics in performing their foundation design?

Example 3 – Permit?

Background: Same as example 1.

Situation: OOM planned to expand a process unit at the regional plant. EPCorp performed the design for the expansion, but was not performing the construction. OOM informed EPCorp that a building permit for the expansion would not be required, but signed and sealed drawings were required for the construction issued package. EPCorp had executed several similar projects in the past, and believed that a building permit was required for the expansion.

What should EPCorp do?

Conclusion These examples represent typical ethical challenges faced by industrial consultants. Your thoughts on answering the question posed in each example are welcomed.


1 Code of Ethics for Engineers by NATIONAL SOCIETY OF PROFESSIONAL ENGINEERS – Publication #1102

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