How electronic engineers can design for sustainability (and make it pay off)

Every engineer will soon have to learn the ropes of sustainable design. Get a head start with these innovative design tools and technologies.

Perhaps you’ve seen the commercial that says, “Someday, we’ll turn your old Honda into your brand-new Honda.” The “someday” of a fully-recyclable automobile is far down the road, but for ecological, financial and compliance reasons, industry is finding ways to at least make products more sustainably.

Given the proliferation of electronic systems in modern vehicles and virtually every other aspect of life, electronic engineers must design with sustainability in mind. Fortunately, innovative design software and industry partnerships are providing the tools and expertise to make it happen. Here’s what electronic engineers need to know to get started with sustainability.

The need for sustainability in electronic design

Worldwide consumption of electrical and electronic products is growing at a rate of 2.5 million metric tons per year, with less than 20% of the e-waste being recycled, according to the 2022 paper “A scoping review of design for circularity in the electrical and electronics industry.” At this rate, global e-waste could increase to 75 million metric tons by the end of the decade.

There’s a potential market in recycling electronic products, as they contain valuable metals like copper, gold, platinum and silver, but the lack of an e-waste recycling infrastructure makes reclaiming these materials difficult and more expensive than simply mining for virgin resources. That will eventually change on its own as commodities become scarce, but the industry would benefit by being proactive rather than reactive, and developing this infrastructure before the supply chain for these materials goes critical. Policies such as the extended producer responsibility movement (adopted, at least in part, by 23 U.S. states) and the EU’s digital product passport (DPP) initiative, make the manufacturer responsible for the product even in the post-consumer phases. DPP requires that information about a product’s environmental impact be available for all stakeholders, including downstream manufacturers as well as consumers. 

Ignoring the problem will continue the trend of price volatility and supply-chain disruptions. Good engineers know that it’s better to address things in the early stages, so product sustainability must begin with design. But first, engineers may need to make a case that appeases the financial powers-that-be. Let’s see… how does more profit sound?

Show me the money

A study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimated that a circular economy would bring about an industry-wide cost savings of $400 to $600 billion per year. For instance, smartphone manufacturers could reduce the cost of refurbishing and remanufacturing by adopting a modular design with parts that are easy to replace. These remanufactured phones can then be resold to consumers who either can’t afford new phones or simply don’t need all the bells and whistles offered by the latest models. The same holds true for large household appliances, where customers would save money on the purchase price of a remanufactured product, while the manufacturer earns 30% more in profits by selling refurbished appliances. Over a twenty-year period, this model applied to high-end washing machines could save 397 pounds (180 kg) of steel and 2.5 tons of CO2. In fact, the study suggested that leasing an appliance in a Product-as-a-Service (PaaS) model is preferable for both manufacturers and consumers, noting the new generation of customers who prefer a usage over ownership model for most products—even common household devices.

Circular design tool features

Suphichaya Suppipat and Allen H. Hu, the authors of “A scoping review of design for circularity in the electrical and electronics industry,” identified four areas in which sustainability should be addressed: innovative business models and product servicing (both discussed above), as well as product design and supply chain management. They examined several CAD products to see whether they offered the necessary tools for sustainable design, and found that most are adding sustainability components to their design suites. The authors noted that distributed manufacturing has been driven by IoT, big data, AI, cloud computing and smart networks; the same technologies can be the catalysts that bring about the circular economy, largely in product design and supply chain management

(Image: Suppipat et al.)

(Image: Suppipat et al.)

Initial sustainability design tools were focused on environmental factors only, ignoring economic and social issues. Within the past few years, these design tools have added detailed analyses that compare the cost of the product with one design versus the same product with a more sustainable design. Some will even go as far as tracking the supply chain for the product’s components and flagging cases where the material comes from a nation that uses unfair labor practices or, for other reasons, are undesirable trade partners (for example, the battery industry is moving away from cobalt because much of it comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Russia). Most design products, however, are still addressing only a portion of the problem. The researchers recommend developing holistic design tools that facilitate a circular and equitable economy.

CAD tools for sustainable design

With or without a sustainability component, simulations and digital twins already reduce the need for physical prototyping, decreasing the materials used during the design phase. They also determine the amount of energy a product will use over its expected lifetime, another factor of its environmental impact. Fortunately, many common design suites—some that you may already use—have sustainability modules that can be added on to the base product.

For example, Autodesk Fusion 360 offers the Makersite extension, an add-on that uses advanced analytics to help engineers make real-time design decisions based on environmental and economic factors. Working within the Fusion 360 design environment, Makersite looks at a design’s BOM and calculates the carbon footprint and cost of each component by tracking every part’s supply chain. Costs are separated into material and manufacturing costs, by individual components and complete system. Results are presented in table format and as a heat-map visualization on the CAD drawing, making it easy to identify parts that could be replaced. Makersite offers recommendations for replacement materials and shows the financial and ecological impacts of the change.

A screenshot of the Makersite Autodesk Fusion 360 plugin. (Image: Makersite.)

A screenshot of the Makersite Autodesk Fusion 360 plugin. (Image: Makersite.)

In addition, Makersite tracks the history of design revisions, allowing stakeholders to compare the carbon footprint of the original product with that of its later versions. Part of the circular economy involves tracking the ecological impact of every part in the supply chain, so for those designing products that use other products—such as a modular system where one or more modules is made by a different manufacturer—the module manufacturers can easily use Makersite data to create reports for their customers. Besides the carbon footprint and cost, Makersite will also assess a product’s compliance with various regulations, as well as its risk, health and safety factors.

Similarly, Solidworks Sustainability is a design suite that provides support for a circular economy with its SustainabilityXpress checker, which conducts a life cycle analysis (LCA) of the design. Its LCA dashboard, which is updated on-the-fly as each design changes, shows the environmental (carbon, energy, air, water) and financial impacts of a product. Each environmental factor is evaluated, cradle-to-grave, in terms of extraction, transportation, processing, manufacturing, assembly, consumer usage and end-of-life options (landfilling, recycling and incineration). Engineers can easily generate custom reports to share with stakeholders.

Screenshot of the Solidworks Sustainability LCA dashboard. (Image: Solidworks.)

Screenshot of the Solidworks Sustainability LCA dashboard. (Image: Solidworks.)

If your company uses a different CAD package than one of these, find out which sustainability add-ons they offer. Consider partnering with companies that provide products and expertise to help your company achieve its sustainability goals.

Sustainability partnerships: We’re all in this together

Recognizing the need for a circular economy and persuaded by the potential profits that go with it, many companies are collaborating with each other and with sustainability experts such as the Finnish Technical Research Centre (known as VTT). According to VTT’s website, advances are being made in modularity, biodegradable materials, additive manufacturing, printable electronics, energy harvesting and smart labels. For instance, an electrocardiogram (EKG) patch is a single use device made of an adhesive patch, sensor and signal processing circuitry. Since the patches can’t be sterilized to medical specs, they must be disposable. To reduce waste, VTT developed a biodegradable, disposable nanocellulose EKG patch with detachable (and reusable) electronics.

When you think of additive manufacturing, your mind might go directly to 3D printing, but AM can also be applied to electronics. Rather than using a hard plastic substrate, coating one side with copper, and etching away the unneeded copper, VTT found that in many applications, a bio-based substrate can accommodate flexible electronic parts that can be applied directly to the substrate using a process that consumes less energy and eliminates the need for harsh etching chemicals. Not only does this decrease material usage and toxic waste, it also makes the product lighter. Self-powered smart labels can be made with bioplastics, printed organic photovoltaic cells and printed supercapacitors. More capable than RFID tags, smart labels can improve logistical efficiency in ways that more than compensate for the materials and energy used to create the labels. For example, when applied to temperature-sensitive products, these labels will continuously monitor and log the temperature during transport. The recipient can then check the log to ensure that the product was kept within an acceptable temperature range. Smart labels may also include QR codes for consumers to get more information about a product, including its environmental footprint.

(Image: VTT.)

(Image: VTT.)

IC fabrication is an energy-intensive process, with some plants drawing as much as 100 megawatts of power. Intel, for example, says that its IC fabrication plants run on 90% renewable energy—but the same can’t be said for its suppliers, so Intel and Siemens are collaborating on a project to improve energy efficiency and sustainability across the semiconductor supply chain. Using Siemens’ software and equipment, Intel will create digital twins to explore various efficiency options, in both the fabrication process itself as well as the upstream supply chain, that could eventually be applied across the industry. This collaboration will allow Intel to model its supply chain and locate areas that can be improved.

Similarly, Schneider Electric partnered with Intel and Applied Materials to launch the Catalyze program to help chipmakers improve efficiency and adopt more renewable energy. Since energy usage represents nearly one-third of operating costs at a fabrication plant, Catalyze will help manufacturers reduce their energy expenses. Schneider will provide training and materials to its partners, which they hope will not only reduce carbon emissions from fabs, but also create investment opportunities for renewable energy. Siemens, Schneider Electric and many other companies offer tools and consulting services to help their clients decrease operating expenses by reducing energy and material consumption, so companies just starting their sustainability efforts can work with experienced mentors instead of reinventing the wheel of circular design.

The future of cooling

Data centers consume large quantities of energy for computing, but they use almost as much just to keep the equipment cool. The proliferation of cloud computing and AI exacerbates the problem.

To address heat issues in electronics, researchers at UCLA have developed a thermal transistor that directs heat flow much like an electronic transistor controls current. Researcher Yongjie Hu says that the thermal transistors are affordable, scalable and compatible with manufacturing processes. He envisions them being integrated into electronic devices to efficiently remove unwanted heat and perhaps direct it to areas that need heating. For example, EVs in cold weather don’t have the advantage of abundant waste heat from the engine that can easily be redirected to the passenger compartment. But EV batteries generate heat and require cooling, so thermal transistors could move heat from the batteries to the passenger compartment without the need for a heavy water pump and its associated plumbing. While the researchers have published a paper showing proof of concept, it’ll be a few years before the thermal transistor is commercially viable.


Industry sees the need and is providing the tools and resources to make sustainability a reality. Sustainable design capability is already becoming a job requirement for engineers, so what are you doing to make your products—and your career—more sustainable?