Sustainable design — a dedicated effort to create products in a manner that minimizes their negative impact on the environment, making them more economically viable, socially acceptable, and ecologically tenable — is often misunderstood. In the past, many manufacturers viewed efforts to become more environmentally friendly as expenses rather than opportunities.

With an automated Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) application, the projected environmental im - pacts of a product design can be evaluated at each stage of a product’s lifecycle.
However, in today’s marketplace, this perspective is proving to be outdated, short-sighted, and fraught with misconceptions. Today, more environmentally friendly and sustainable design can substantially increase revenues, significantly lower costs, and dramatically become a catalyst for innovation and business growth.

The growing environmental awareness of consumers, and its impact on purchasing decisions, creates valuable opportunities to produce greener products and generate new revenue streams. Sustainable design can spark innovative approaches and revolutionary new products, and is becoming an important business strategy for controlling operational costs and reducing energy expenditures.

The Future of Product Development

Too often, manufacturers operate according to a short-term view. While focusing on the present is important for achieving success in the near term, a total fixation on the marketplace as it is today, rather than on making decisions and investments that take into account anticipated changes, can prove to be detrimental to a company’s success. Without a long-term view, an organization may be unable to respond to competitive pressures, or be incapable of capitalizing on new green markets and business expansion opportunities.

Consider the breakthrough changes that have occurred over the past few decades, including:

  • Introduction of green products
  • Rising cost of traditional energy sources
  • Increasing reliance on renewable energy sources
  • Continuing depletion of natural resources
  • Substantial growth in municipal recycling programs
  • Rise in consumer-driven “eco-labeling” programs
  • Adoption of carbon legislation by governments worldwide
  • Launching of major sustainability initiatives by Fortune® 100 companies.

Manufacturers that can successfully incorporate sustainable design practices will be positioned to respond to increasing consumer demand and a growing preference for eco-friendly products. They also will be able to stimulate innovation in the development of new products, control development costs through optimized energy and material usage, and boost revenues through product expansion and organic growth.

Benefits of Sustainable Product Development

Although many manufacturers view sustainability favorably, some remain skeptical about the benefits of sustainable design. How can making your processes more sustainable and your products greener give you an advantage over competitors that don’t operate under the same requirements? By providing you with the ability to innovate, sustainable design can produce bottom-line and top-line benefits that give your organization a strategic advantage.

Take compliance, for example. Contrary to popular belief, it actually costs more to manage minimal regulatory compliance for each market in the world than it does to adhere to the most stringent standards throughout your organization. By uniformly meeting the toughest regulations across your enterprise, you can benefit through economies of scale and optimized supply chain operations. Similarly, sustainable design can reduce or control product development costs through improved material usage, alternative manufacturing processes, reduced energy consumption, optimized shipping scenarios, and decreased risk and liability concerns.

The best approach for implementing a sustainable design strategy is to do so in a way that causes the least amount of disruption to your current business operations, while setting the stage to drive sustainability throughout your future business functions. Product development is the natural place to implement sustainable design because it represents your business at its most embryonic point. The design and engineering of a product dictates everything that follows: what the product’s made of, how it’s made, how much energy it consumes (in use and while it’s manufactured), how it’s shipped, and what type of environmental impact the product has throughout its lifecycle. Virtually every issue related to sustainability emanates from a product’s initial design.

Assessing sustainability at the product development stage is the most logical place to start because decisions made when a product is designed can impact the eco-friendliness and sustainability of subsequent processes in an exponential fashion. Choosing to continue to use an increasingly expensive, scarce, or harmful material, for instance, can have substantial cost ramifications in manufacturing, purchasing, and sales.

When you evaluate a product’s environmental impact while it’s being developed, you can most effectively communicate sustainability benefits to downstream processes and across your organization. By implementing sustainability practices in product development, you can create the critical mass required to overcome organizational inertia to implementing sustainability practices throughout your enterprise.

A Focus on Lifecycles

By providing environmental impact estimates ineach of four key areas, SolidWorks Sustainabilitysoftware provides information product developersneed to make informed sustainability decisions.
What type of information should you generate in product development to facilitate sustainable design? Some companies have undertaken elaborate, detailed Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) for each of their products to understand how they can apply sustainability to existing products and develop derivative offerings.

An LCA is an in-depth, cradle-to-grave analysis of your product’s environmental impact throughout every facet of its lifecycle. Although LCAs can be sophisticated and expensive, manufacturers can perform automated lifecycle-based evaluations in software that produce good estimates, which you can use as guidance for sustainable design. The most important step is to start thinking about environmental impacts over your product’s full lifecycle.

For example, what are the characteristics of the different stages of a product’s lifecycle that hold the greatest potential for damaging environmental impacts? What is the product’s carbon footprint — how much CO2 is released into the atmosphere as a result of the manufacture and use of the product? How much energy does the product consume both during use and while it’s manufactured? Does your product or production process emit gases and compounds into the atmosphere? Are effluents that can impact vital ecosystems released into waterways during manufacturing or as a result of the use of your product?

In-depth assessments of the impact of a product’s lifecycle can be quite elaborate and detailed. For the purposes of product development, LCA thinking, automated solutions, and reliable metrics of environmental impacts, which provide guidance on a design’s potential sustainability, represent simpler, more pragmatic approaches to incorporating sustainable design in product development than a full, comprehensive LCA.

Obtaining these types of quick answers provides designers and engineers with the information and confidence that they need to make smart, environmentally friendly design decisions before manufacturing begins.

Adopting Greener Design

The critical role that sustainability will play in establishing strategic advantage has already begun. Most business experts anticipate that sustainability will force companies to rethink their business models to make their products, technologies, and processes more sustainable, not just to achieve regulatory compliance or engender goodwill, but to remain viable and successful.

Manufacturers need more than just assumptions regarding environmental impacts. You need to be able to use LCA thinking to generate reliable estimates of environmental impacts in order to manage the development of greener products and demonstrate the benefits of sustainable design. Software products, such as SolidWorks® Sustainability, are available to help manufacturers implement sustainable design.

For a technology-based solution to be effective in facilitating sustainable design, it must take into account the strategies required to effect this transition. The information generated as a result of LCA-based sustainable design establishes the foundation for the successful execution of the planning, development, manufacturing, communication, and marketing strategies that will drive your company’s sustainability efforts forward.

Software allows you to assess and evaluate environmental impacts before making any hard investments in materials or machinery. You can use this information to create breakthrough innovations, introduce new processes, communicate sustainable initiatives, and market greener products. Using sustainability software allows designers and engineers to measure the environmental impact of the products they design in their CAD software. It provides real-time feedback on environmental impacts in four key areas: Carbon Footprint, Total Energy Consumed, Effect on Water, and Effect on Air.

This LCA information is generated through the GaBi database and material/ process model provided by PE International, a leading provider of sustainable design and software services. Applied methods include implementing management systems, developing sustainability indicators, life cycle assessment (LCA), carbon footprint, design for environment (DfE) and environmental product declarations (EPD), technology benchmarking or eco-efficiency analysis, emissions management, and clean development mechanism projects.

Consumer demand for eco-friendly products leads to innovative designs, such as the Tango electric carfrom Commuter Cars Corp.
The ability to estimate environmental impacts during product design — at the single component, individual assembly, and complete product level — adds a new dimension to the product development process. With SolidWorks Sustainability software, designers and engineers will have an Environmental Impact Dashboard as part of their design system, so they can estimate environmental impacts for each stage of a product’s lifecycle, including: Raw Materials Ex traction, Material Processing, Part Manufacturing, Assembly, Product Use, and End of Life. The software can generate the following estimates:

  • Carbon Footprint. Measures the units of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emitted.
  • Total Energy Consumed. Measures the consumption of non-renewable energy associated with the design’s lifecycle, in units of megajoules (MJ).
  • Air Acidification. Measures the units of kilogram sulfur dioxide equivalent (SO2) emitted into the atmosphere; used as a measure of overall environmental impact to the air.
  • Water Eutrophication. Measures the units of kilogram phosphate equivalent (PO4) released; used as a measure of overall environmental impact to the water.

Sustainable design practices are crucial aspects of any sustainability initiative. Having environmental impact assessment capabilities integrated inside your company’s design system will jumpstart your sustainability efforts by generating the kinds of information that could only have been guessed at in the past.

Perhaps the greatest challenge that manufacturers face in implementing a sustainability strategy is communicating the benefits of sustainable design in a way that makes business sense to product development, supply chain management, manufacturing, sales, and marketing. Some parties that may appear to be external such as vendors, partners, and suppliers, become an integral part of the sustainability discussion because many of the environmental impacts linked to your products depend upon supplied components and materials. Even customers factor into the mix. For example, many OEMs now require sustainability scorecards from their suppliers in order to obtain preferred status.

Although you may believe that the time for urgency resides somewhere in the future, that time is here. It’s not just consumer demand for eco-friendly products that’s on the rise, but also a ramping-up of sustainability programs at manufacturing companies large and small. To reach the point where sustainability provides a competitive advantage for your organization, you need to start thinking about it now.

This article was contributed by Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp., Concord, MA.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the October, 2011 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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