Author: Dr Lampros Litos (Cranfield University). 

Topic: Sustainability in manufacturing. 

Tool type: Guidance. 

Engineering disciplines:  Aeronautical; Manufacturing, Mechanical. 

Keywords: Energy efficiency; Factories; Best practice; Eco-efficiency; Practice maturity model; AHEP; Student support; Sustainability. 

Sustainability competency: Critical thinking; Integrated problem-solving.

AHEP mapping: This resource addresses two of the themes from the UK’s Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes fourth edition (AHEP4): The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this resource to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37. 

Related SDGs: SDG 9 (Industry, innovation, and infrastructure); SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production). 

Reimagined Degree Map Intervention: More real-world complexity.


Learning and teaching notes: 

The following are a set of use cases for a maturity model designed to improve energy and resource efficiency in manufacturing facilities. This guide can help engineering educators integrate some of the main concepts behind this model (efficient use of energy and resources in factories in the context of continuous improvement and sustainability) into student learning by showcasing case study examples.   

Teachers could use one or all of the following use cases to put students in the shoes of a practicing engineer whose responsibility is to evaluate and improve factory fitness from a sustainability perspective.  


Supporting resources:  


Factory assessment in multiple assembly facilities for an aircraft manufacturer:

The assessment is part of the following use case on this industrial energy efficiency network (IEEN): 

The company operates in the aerospace sector and runs 11 manufacturing sites that employ approximately 50000 people across 4 European countries. Most of the sites are responsible for specific parts of the aircraft i.e. fuselage, wings. These parts once manufactured are sent to two final assembly sites. Addressing energy efficiency in manufacturing has been a major concern for the company for several years.  


It was not until 2006 that a corporate policy was developed that would formalize efforts towards energy efficiency and set a 20% reduction in energy by the year 2020 across all manufacturing sites. An environmental steering committee at board level was set up which also oversaw waste reduction and resource efficiency. The year 2006 became the baseline year for energy savings and performance measures. Energy saving projects were initiated then, across multiple manufacturing sites. These were carried out as project-based activities, locally guided by the heads of each division and function per site.  


A corporate protocol for developing the business case for each project is an initial part of the process. It is designed to assign particular resources and accountabilities to the people in charge of the improvements. Up to 2012, improvement initiatives had a local focus per site and an awareness-raising character. It was agreed that in order to replicate local improvements across the plants a process of cross-plant coordination was necessary. A study on the barriers to energy efficiency in this company revealed three important barriers which needed to be addressed: 

  • Lack of accountability: The site energy manager is responsible for reducing the site’s energy consumption but only has authority to act within a facility’s domain–that is, by improving facilities and services, such as buildings and switchgear. They are not empowered to act within a manufacturing operations parameter. Therefore, no one is responsible for reducing energy demand.  
  • No clear ownership: Many improvements are identified but then delayed due to a lack of funding to carry out the works. This is because neither facilities nor manufacturing operations agree whether the improvement is inside their parameter: typically, facilities claim that it is a manufacturing process improvement, and operations claim that any benefit would be realized by facilities. Both are correct, hence neither will commit resources to achieve the improvement and own the improvement. 
  • No sense of urgency: A corporate target exists for energy reduction–but the planned date for achieving this is 2020.  

The solution that the environmental steering committee decided to support, was the creation of an industrial energy efficiency network (IEEN). The company had previously done something similar when seeking to harmonize its manufacturing processes through  process technology groups (Lunt et al., 2015). This approach consists of each plant nominating a representative who is taking the lead and coordinating activities. It is expected that the industrial network would contribute to a significant 7% share out of the 20% energy reduction target for the year 2020 since its establishment as an operation in 2012.  


The network’s operations are further facilitated with corporate resources such as online tools that help practitioners report and track the progress of current projects, review past ones, and learn about best-available techniques. This practice evolved into an intranet website that is further available to the wider community of practitioners and aims to generate further interest and enhance the flow of information back to the network. Additionally, a handbook to guide new and existing members in engaging effectively with the network and its objective has been developed for wider distribution. These tools are supported by training campaigns across the sites.   


Most of the network members also act as boundary spanners (Gittell and Weiss, 2004) in the sense that they have established connections to process technology groups or they are members of these groups as well. This helps the network establish strong links with other informal groups within the organization and act as conductor for a better flow of ideas between these groups and the network. Potentially, network members have a chance to influence core technology groups towards energy efficiency at product level.  


On average, a 5-10% work-time allocation is approved for all network members to engage with the network functions. In case a member is not coping in terms of time management there is the option of sub-contracting the improvement project to an external subcontractor who is hired for that particular purpose and the subcontractor’s time allocation to the project can be up to 100%.  


 “….by having the network we meet and we select together a list of projects that we want to put forward to access that central pot of money. So we know roughly how much will be allocated to industrial energy efficiency and so we select projects across all of the sites that we think will get funded and we put them all together as a group…so rather than having lots of individual sites making individual requests for funding and being rejected, by going together as a group and having some kind of strategy as well…” 


Each dot on each of the model rows represents the relative efficiencies that a factory achieves in saving energy and resources through best practice (5 of 11 factories represented here, each delivering an aircraft part towards final assembly). The assessment allowed this network of energy efficiency engineers and managers to better understand the strengths and weaknesses in different factories and where the learning opportunities exist (and against which dimension of the model). 


2. The perception problem in manufacturing processes and management practice:

The following assessment is performed in a leading aerospace company where two senior engineering managers (green and orange lines) find it difficult to agree on the maturity of different practices currently used at the factory level as part of their environmental sustainability strategy.  

This assessment was part of the following use case: 

The self-assessment was completed by the head of environment and one of his associates in the same function. These two practitioners work closely together and are based in the UK headquarters. Even though the maturity profiles do not vary significantly (1 level plus or minus) it is clear that there is very little overall agreement on the maturity levels in each dimension.  


3. Using the maturity model as a consensus building tool in a factory:

Seven practitioners from different parts of the business (engineering, operations, marketing, health and safety etc.) were brought together to understand how they think the factory performs. The convergence between perceptions was very small and this would indicate high levels of resistance to change and continuous improvement. For example, if senior managers think they are doing really well, they will not invest time and effort in better practices and technologies. 

A timeline (today +5years) was used to understand where they think they are today and where they want to be tomorrow.  

This can be one of the ways of thinking about improvements that need to occur, starting with areas of interest that are underperforming and developing the right projects to address the gaps. 



Lunt, M.F. et al. (2015) ‘Reconciling reported and unreported HFC emissions with  Atmospheric Observations’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(19), pp. 5927–5931.  

Gittell, Jody & Weiss, Leigh. (2004). Coordination Networks Within and Across Organizations: A Multi-level Framework. Journal of Management Studies. 41. 127-153. 



1. High resolution picture of the maturity model for printing (also available here: Litos, L. (2016). Design support for eco-efficiency improvements in manufacturing p. 218.)


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.  

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters. 
To view a plain text version of this resource, click here to download the PDF.

Author: Professor Manuela Rosa (Algarve University, Institute of Engineering). 

Topic: Engineering for ecological sustainability. 

Tool type: Knowledge. 

Relevant disciplines: Any. 

Keywords: Curriculum; Engineering professionals; Ecology; Ecosystem services; Natural resources; Interdisciplinary; Biodiversity; Water and sanitation; Climate change; AHEP; Sustainability; Higher education; Pedagogy. 
Sustainability competency: Systems thinking; Collaboration; Integrated problem-solving; Self-awareness; Normative.

AHEP mapping: This resource addresses two of the themes from the UK’s Accreditation of Higher Education Programmes fourth edition (AHEP4): The Engineer and Society (acknowledging that engineering activity can have a significant societal impact) and Engineering Practice (the practical application of engineering concepts, tools and professional skills). To map this resource to AHEP outcomes specific to a programme under these themes, access AHEP 4 here and navigate to pages 30-31 and 35-37. 

Related SDGs: SDG 4 (Quality education); SDG 6 (Clean water and sanitation); SDG 7 (Affordable and clean energy); SDG 12 (Responsible consumption and production); SDG 14 (Life below water). 
Reimagined Degree Map Intervention: Cross-disciplinarity; Active pedagogies and mindset development.

Who is this article for? This article should be read by educators at all levels in higher education who wish to embed environmental and ecological sustainability into the engineering curriculum or design modules. Engaging with this topic will also help to prepare students with the soft skill sets that employers are looking for. 



Engineering has always responded to the societal challenges of humanity, contributing to its progress and economic development. However, the synergetic effects of fossil-based economic growth together with large-scale engineering projects have also caused great pressures on natural resources and ecosystems leading to over-exploitation and degradation. In consequence, in the last decades, a multidimensional perspective on sustainability perspective has arisen, and has been acknowledged by social movements, governments and institutions.   

Meanwhile, this assumes deep epistemological changes, requiring holistic and transdisciplinary approaches that must be considered by engineering professionals, establishing communication based on new ways of thinking. There is the need to interweave disciplines, to establish complementary relationships, to create associations in order to root new knowledge, enabling communication between the sciences. In doing so, transdisciplinary science has emerged, i.e. the science that can develop from these communications. It corresponds to a higher stage succeeding the stage of interdisciplinary relationships, which would not only cover interactions or reciprocities between specialised research projects, but would place these relationships within a total system without any firm boundaries between disciplines (Piaget, 1972).  

Currently, the complexity associated with climate change and the uncertainty of the link between global loss of biodiversity and current loss of public health, are demanding innovative knowledge, needing those holistic and transdisciplinary approaches.  Engineering professionals must therefore give additional attention to ecological sustainability. 


The challenges of sustainability: 

The term “sustainability” portrays the quality of maintenance of something which can continue for an indefinite time, such as biological species and ecosystems. Sustainability is based on a dynamic balance between natural and human ecosystems, in order to maintain the diversity, complexity and functions of the ecological systems that support life, while contributing to prosperous and harmonious human development (Costanza, 1997). This strong perspective of sustainability needs to have a prominent place in land use management which must consider the carrying capacity of natural ecosystems.  

Ecological sustainability in particular aims to maintain the earth’s natural potential and the biosphere, its stock of natural resources, atmosphere and hydrosphere, ecosystems and species. Ecosystems should be kept healthy by preserving their “ecological integrity”, i.e. the capacity to maintain the structure and function of its natural communities, which includes biogeochemical cycles.  

Engineering professionals must therefore understand the global limits for water, land, and energy use (contributing to less atmospheric carbon emissions), and preserve other natural resources, such as nutrients or biodiversity. In the technical decision-making process, they need to understand the ecological impacts of big scale projects, such as transportation infrastructures, dams, deforestation, and others. Alongside other professionals, they need to contribute to the restoration, conservation and preservation of ecosystem services, e. g. support services, production services, regulating services and cultural services. These services result in benefits that people and organisations receive from ecosystems and constitute determinants of well-being (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005).  

Until now, technical solutions often focused on highly visible man-made structures, many of which stopped or disrupted natural processes. Presently, the importance of regulating natural ecosystem services such as water purification, water supply, erosion and flood control, carbon storage and climate regulation is beginning to be perceived. These are considered as soft engineering tools and must be highlighted by engineering educators and assumed in the practice. 

This ecological mindset would enable solutions that recognise management and restoration of natural ecosystems in order to curb climate change, protect biodiversity, sustain livelihoods and manage rainstorms. Nature-based solutions are a natural climate solution in cities, contributing to the mitigation and adaptation of climate change through green roofs, rain gardens, constructed wetlands that can minimise damaging runoff by absorbing stormwater, reducing flood risks and safeguarding freshwater ecosystems. They are essential in climate refuges for city residents during heatwaves and other extreme climate events. These solutions need specific and new knowledge made by ecologists working with engineers and others, which demands action beyond disciplinary silo, i.e., a transdisciplinary approach.  

Within this context, engineering professionals must consider specific operating principles of sustainability: 

These principles must be considered in engineering education, and require deep changes in teaching, because there is a great difficulty in studying and managing the socio-ecological system according to the Cartesian paradigm which breaks up and separates the parts of a whole. New ecological thinking emphasises holistic approaches, non-linearity, and values focused on preservation, conservation and collaboration (Capra, 1996). The transdisciplinary approach needs dialogic and recursive thinking, which articulates from the whole to the parts and from the parts to the whole, and can only be unchained with the connection of the different fields of knowledge, including knowledge from local communities in specific territories.   

In higher education, engineering students should establish face-to-face contacts with ecology students in order to better understand ecological sustainability and generate empathy on the subject. Engineering students must develop skills of collaboration and inter-cultural communication tools (Caeiro-Rodríguez et al., 2021) that will facilitate face to face workshops with other professionals and enrich learning experiences.  

In the 21st century, beyond the use of technical knowledge to solve problems, engineering professionals need communicational abilities to consider ecological sustainability, requiring networking, cooperating in teams, and working with local communities. Engineering educators must include trans-sectoral and transdisciplinary research and holistic approaches which make clear progress in tackling ecological sustainability. 



The interconnected socio-ecological system must be managed for sustainability by multiple stakeholders.  Engineering professionals need to develop a set of skills and competencies related with the ability to work with other ones (e.g. from the natural sciences) and citizens. Currently, beyond the use of technical knowledge to solve problems, engineers need to consider the sustainable development goals, requiring networking, cooperating in teams, and working with communities through transdisciplinary approaches.  

Education for Sustainable Development is required to empower engineering professionals to adopt strong sustainable actions that simultaneously ensure ecological integrity, economic viability and a just society for the current and future generations. Education is a fundamental tool for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, as recognised in the 2030 Education Agenda, coordinated by UNESCO (2020).  




This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. 

Any views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein are solely that of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, policies, or position of the Engineering Professors’ Council or the Toolkit sponsors and supporters. 


To view a plain text version of this resource, click here to download the PDF.

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