Brewing engineers

I’m on my seventh or eighth coffee maker. I drink a lot of coffee but buying a new coffee maker every 14 months seems a little ridiculous. And don’t get me started on hairdryers, refrigerators, carpet cleaners and power washers. It seems that small — and large — appliances are no longer built to last. Instead — it seems rather obvious — they are built to ensure a steady stream of new appliances into my life. It’s great for the companies whose products I have to buy over and over. But it’s not great for the landfills where my broken coffee makers end up, nor is it good for my pocket book — or my disposition.

Machines were once built to last. Cars, clothes washers and ovens lasted for a generation, not months. Recently, I came across a video in the New York Times archives of a 103-year-old woman who was still driving her 1938 Packard. My dad had a lawnmower he used for over 40 years, and my mother recently retired a freezer that was almost 60 years old. (It was still running, by the way.) Granted, machines were simpler. No computer chips. No complicated electronics. But they were dependable and they lasted.

The cynical part of me thinks these new machines are the evil incarnation of planned obsolescence. The sensible part of me thinks there has to be a better way to make a coffee pot. A group of soon-to-be JMU engineering graduates would probably agree with me.

Next spring more than 40 student engineers will graduate from JMU’s new School of Engineering armed with a forward-thinking approach to their field. JMU’s  engineering program is based on four pillars of sustainability — technical, environmental, economic and social. A coffee maker, for instance, should be built with sound technology (that works and lasts), with materials that harmonize with growing environmental concerns, with functionality that spurs marketability and economic growth, and with a purpose that meets social needs (in this case, my need for morning coffee.)

A far more profound and important example is the work of one of JMU’s engineering capstone projects. Team Africa is designing a health care clinic for Sub-Saharan Africa that will merge the environmental and social needs of the native people with technology to work appropriately with their society and economy.

Such an approach to engineering is critical to our collective future. Most of the environmental degradation that has occurred across the world has happened during the past 125 years. During that same time period many social and political concerns have become more glaring in a diverse global society. Add these to the possibilities that emerging technologies and a new global mindset offer, and you have a formula for a better future IF we plan and manage it well.

The key is sustainable engineering.

On a large scale, JMU’s  approach has benefits that are exponential. Imagine, if you will, an office complex being built that considered the economic and social and technological and environmental impacts from all angles. Sounds like the way it should be done.

Historically, though, it has not always been done this way, but things are changing throughout the industry. A 2007 annual report by the Association of Mechanical Engineers quotes Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders-USA, who said, “Engineers must become the facilitators of sustainable development.”

In the spring of 2012, JMU will begin graduating engineers to solve problems from this broad and comprehensive perspective. This new breed of engineer will change the way we build machines, construct buildings, create systems and engineer our lives. They will change engineering and thus the world.

As the inaugural class of JMU’s School of Engineering completes its senior year, we’ve been keeping tabs on its work, especially three capstone projects. Watch for news and feature stories — beginning with the work of Team Africa — throughout the year on this pioneering group of students.

Personally, I have high hopes that one of these new engineers will someday design a coffee maker that will work well for years and years …..

….I can almost smell the aroma.

To learn more about JMU’s new School of Engineering and the work of Team Africa, visit the school’s website

You can also find them on Facebook.

And if you are a JMU alumnus or friend of JMU who didn’t know that JMU had engineering, help us spread the word by pasting this blog to your Facebook page, other social media or emailing this post.


About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

2 Responses to Brewing engineers

  1. grahammb says:

    You’re right, Tom. I had two brand new coffee makers. One made a single pot and quit. The next one didn’t work at all. This approach to engineering just makes so much sense!


  2. Tom H says:

    You get my vote, MBG. I actually tried to find and order parts for a favorite Hamilton Beach Brewstation a couple of years ago. I could have done it, except parts plus S&H were MORE than buying a new, upgraded model from Wally-world. Good luck to the new engiDukes !!


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