What is all the Noise About?

Editor’s note: Why are workers still experiencing hearing loss? Did you hear about how some manufacturers make products noisier to make them sound more pleasant? Is noise control still a good description of what we do? These are all some key questions for our noise control community. To tackle these and other issues, we’ve teamed up with Dr. Jim Thompson – former President of INCE-USA and Chairman of the SAE Noise and Vibration General Committee. He’s also the former NNI Managing Editor and is currently the Editor of the Noise Control Engineering Journal. For each issue, Jim will offer his thoughts on some key questions related to noise control, and we’d like to invite you to get in touch and let you know what you think. If you’d like to submit a response to Jim’s column, please email me at kingea@tcd.ie
For this issue, Jim tackles the issue of sustainability and noise control.

Sustainability and Noise Control – What the Heck?

Jim Thompson

Noting that the theme of the INTER-NOISE 2022 Congress is Noise Control in a More Sustainable Future made me think about what sustainability is and how the heck is it related to noise control.

However, the current concept of sustainability is far broader and more complex. Sustainability is now better defined as “the ability of societies to maintain and improve quality of life while preserving both the quality and availability of their natural resources.” Clearly, this is much broader than my original dilemma.

Frankly, this definition may be too broad to be useful. I think sustainability has become one of those terms that everyone uses, and everyone has a different meaning for it. If you ask the public, you will probably hear about preventing or slowing climate change or about maintaining equipment.

How does noise control fit into sustainability? The simplest answer is that we must design noise control solutions that are effective and continue to work in the operating environment. But there is more than that. Noise control impacts the quality of life for humans and other animals on the planet. I could make a long list including hearing loss, sleep disturbance, stress, health issues due to environmental noise, habitat disruption of high noise levels, design of performance spaces, etc. Quality of life is an important part of sustainability. On the other hand, controlling global warming while decimating the quality of life for humans and other species is not a solution.

Going back to the public, if you asked whether noise control was a part of sustainability you would probably get more questions than positive responses. To distort an old phrase “noise control gets no respect”. Often noise control is seen as a necessary evil or something “only done for aesthetics” – many engineers see aesthetics as that unimportant touchy-feely stuff. We must get beyond these old stereotypes and see noise control as enhancing the quality of life on this planet. I have a standard answer to anyone who balks at this “grandiose” definition: talk to a retired miner or factory worker who cannot communicate with their grandchildren, and their tears will demonstrate the importance of quality of life and the impact noise control can have.

So, if noise control is important in preserving and improving the quality of life and quality of life is an important part of sustainability, how do we better define our role and demonstrate our importance as noise control engineers? We cannot depend on legislators or regulators to do this for us. They have been unable to provide workable noise regulations in most cases and have shown themselves unable to get ahead of the global warming issue.

One of the concerns I have is that noise control engineers often undervalue the work they do. In talking to automotive NVH engineers whose noise improvements are incorporated in millions of cars sold each year, they consistently do not feel what they did was important in terms of quality-of-life impact.  We need to demand “respect” and make noise control a part of the sustainability discussion.

How do we do this? I do not have a magic solution and doubt there is one. We must continue to reduce noise and improve the quality of life, but we must also be involved in the discussion of sustainability and our role. This is a large-scale discussion that includes technology, politics, prioritization, money, and societal perceptions of the issues.

I would like to hear what you think about this issue, and how you believe noise control can earn its rightful place in sustainability considerations.