Mexican Plow
Staff posted on October 24, 2006 |
Mexican Plow

Should the plow be designed at all?

Technology makes such a profound impact on a culture that there is always a question whether a particular technological artifact should be created at all. Some technological innovations have clearly been more destructive than constructive. It is possible that the Loriana stove discussed previously should never have been produced. The question about the ultimate value of a technological innovation is often difficult to answer, but it is one which an ethically sophisticated designer should consider.

Three final observations should be made. First, a designer cannot answer all of the questions we have posed here. To do so, she would not only have to do an enormous amount of research, but she would have to know the particular social group for which the plow is being designed. Many of these questions would be answered in different ways for different social groups. Since the plow is presumably being designed for a large number of cultural groups, the designer cannot design the plow so as to accommodate only one such group. Perhaps, though, the engineer could design the plow so that it would be as adaptable as possible to the demands of different groups.

Second, the purpose of this discussion has not been to cause an engineer to be so obsessed with the cultural and ethical aspects of her work that she loses sight of more narrowly engineering considerations. Rather, the purpose has been to broaden the horizons of students, so that they will be more aware of the fact that design work does have social consequences. Engineers, like most of the rest of us, tend to forget the wider implications of what they do.

Third, this discussion also serves to raise the issue of "problems of conscience" as they arise in engineering work. Engineers sometimes object to working on a project for moral reasons. Some engineers do not want to be associated with military projects. Others object to working on projects (such as dams or projects that involve draining wetlands) that they believe are destructive to the environment. Similarly, an engineer might believe that this plow should not be produced because it would have a negative impact on the culture of those who would use it. Should he or she be given the option of working on another project?

The ability of a firm to assign other work to an engineer depends in part on the size of the firm, but the larger issue is whether engineering societies should be more active in promoting the rights of engineers to object to work on the basis of a problem of conscience. Should engineering codes have a statement that at least encourages firms to provide alternative forms of work for an engineer who has a problem of conscience in working on a particular project? This is an interesting question.


Size and Costs of Tractor-Powered Operations
Concept Farm Size (ha)

  1 2 4 8 16 32 64
Optimum tractor size (hp) 1.5 2.3 3.9 7.0 12.9 24.8 48.5
Annual fixed cost (kg/ha) 375 287 244 219 202 194 189
Annual labor costs (kg/ha) 279 176 105 59 32 17 9
Annual cash capital costs (kg/ha) 745 565 446 373 330 307 294
Annual timeliness losses (kg/hg) 93 118 140 158 171 178 182
Total Annual Cost (kg/ha) 838 683 586 531 501 485 476
Annual hours of operation 186 235 280 316 341 363 367
Cash and capital costs per unit work (kg/hp-hr) 2.71 2.05 1.62 1.36 1.20 1.12 1.07

Distribution of the Cultivated Area According to

Stages of Mechanization in 1975
Concept Stage of Mechanization

  Manual Work Draught Tractors Total Animals
Developing Countries        
Cultivated area 106 ha 125 250 104 479
Relative percentage % 26 52 22 100
Developed Countries        
Cultivated area 106 ha 44 63 537 644
Relative percentage % 7 11 82 100
Cultivated area 106 ha 169 313 641 1123
Relative percentage 15 28 57 100

Note: Both tables were obtained from: FAO, The State of Food and Agriculture, 1988.

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