How to Design Products to be Sustainable

There is a solution to imbed sustainability assessments across the product design process.

Makersite has sponsored this post.

For a growing number of manufacturers, creating sustainable products is less a choice than an imperative. The environmental impact of products is an increasingly important factor in consumer purchase decisions. More and more investors—both individuals and institutions—are holding companies to a higher environmental standard. Governments around the globe are passing laws and adopting regulations intended to fight climate change by restricting what industry can make or sell.

Of course, it’s a difficult transition to make, even when the will to change permeates an organization. According to the United Nations report “Uniting Business in the Decade of Action,” 71 percent of companies surveyed and participating in the UN Global Compact initiative have set measurable sustainability goals. However, despite the initiative’s aims to shift business models towards more sustainable routes, only 25 percent of its surveyed participants have done so.

There are tools that make it easier for engineers to design more sustainable products. (Image courtesy of Makersite.)

There are tools that make it easier for engineers to design more sustainable products. (Image courtesy of Makersite.)

Where can companies start their drive to sustainable business models? The simple answer is the product design phase, which, according to the European Commission’s EU Science Hub and Joint Research Centre, determines 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact. If that number sounds unrealistically high, then think of the many environmental repercussions of a product design, from the choice of raw materials that comprise the parts to the way in which the product must be disposed of and will degrade.

Even when the product development cycle allows enough time to consider the multitude of sustainability factors, designers are unlikely to have the knowledge or tools to calculate the sustainability of a product with worthwhile accuracy. Sustainability specialists might be on the org chart and available to help in theory, but in practice they tend to exist in siloes, tossing reports over a cubicle wall instead of being fully integrated with the design process. If engineering teams are to design truly sustainable products at the pace the market demands and at a cost that shareholders will bear, they need quick and easy access to tools that enable them to gauge the impact of countless design choices on the sustainability of the final product, regardless of its composition or form.

Fortunately, such tools exist, making it easier for manufacturers to improve sustainability across product lines without diminishing speed to market or the bottom line.

What Product Engineers Need to Address Climate Challenges

Before any business commits resources to sustainable product design, it should answer a fundamental question: “What does sustainability mean to us?”

“The hardcore answer is that the product does no environmental damage over its full lifecycle,” says Neil D’Souza, CEO of Makersite, a developer of product data-management tools for manufacturers. However, zero-impact products are practically unachievable. For product designers and engineers, whose objective is optimization rather than perfection, a more useful definition of sustainable product design is a system that leads to products that generate greater output from the same level of input, generate the same level of output from less input, or can be more easily re-used, recycled, repaired, disassembled or dematerialized.

Neil Dsouza, CEO of Makersite (Image courtesy of Makersite).

Neil D’Souza, CEO of Makersite. (Image courtesy of Makersite.)

Fundamentally, then, there are two ways to achieve any of those results: change the product or change procurement.

“You need tools to solve problems from production to end of life,” says D’Souza. “Design controls production and use of the product. If you design a more efficient car or laptop, these are meaningful conscious decisions, and they have a huge impact.” With respect to supply chain, he adds that during design, “we decide what to buy but not where to buy from. You need to always ask about procurement. There are huge differences between buying from Norway or China. In procurement and design, engineers have control over the solution to our climate problem.”

Lifecycle assessment (LCA) is a common approach to gauging the overall impacts of a product or service. The reports it produces answers questions such as what the tradeoffs are—including environmental ones—of choosing Supplier A over Supplier B. However, LCA is mostly performed when products are already on the market, providing a report that is a retrospective of a product’s environmental impact. For engineers to perform sustainable product design, they need to do LCA on the fly. Ideally, the LCA report would behave like a digital twin, automatically updating with each iteration of the design so that the potential environmental impacts of design choices are known before anything is procured, manufactured or sold.

Optimizing For Climate Impact During Design

D’Souza notes that though LCA is a great approach, it’s very meticulous and complex. It traditionally takes a long time to produce an LCA report, and once it is finished the answers often returned are, “it depends. But engineers don’t work with ‘depends,’” he says.

An example of this confusion might be when a report suggests that changing from steel to carbon fiber will reduce fuel consumption but at the expense of higher emissions during disposal. So, which is the better option, steel or carbon fiber? It depends on how long the product will be used—so that the emissions savings from the mileage offset the ones from disposal. Due to the challenges of assessing these types of questions, many design teams will skip the process entirely and instead opt for trendy green options. The trouble is that what is popular might not be what is sustainable, similar to how the cloth and paper bag trend failed to offset plastic bag emissions.

“If you have 16 environmental impact categories, then you can improve one but make the others worse,” says D’Souza. He adds that the importance of LCA is to help engineers decide based on trade-offs. That’s where the idea of multicriteria decision analysis, or MCDA, comes into play. For engineers, MCDA often translates into an iterative design process used to assess a problem based on multiple, frequently competing criteria.

By producing faster and more accurate LCA reports, it’s possible to perform MCDA with a focus of designing sustainable products. As a result, the tradeoffs between cost, quality, time and environmental impacts (ranging from GHG emissions to water usage) can be optimized. Makersite, which D’Souza launched in 2018, brings together digital twin, product lifecycle management (PLM) and artificial intelligence to help inform and accelerate sustainable product design.

How Makersite Can Help Organizations Become Sustainable

Makersite aims to close the LCA expert gap so that engineers can make better environmental decisions about their products during development. The company does this by producing a digital twin that outlines the supply chain and environmental impact of a product. The company starts by importing a BOM. Its AI systems then cross-reference that data with 140 databases.

A screenshot of the Makersite Autodesk plugin. (Image courtesy of Makersite).

A screenshot of the Makersite Autodesk plugin. (Image courtesy of Makersite.)

At this point the digital twin is created and can be represented as a Sankey diagram, which gives the user better insights into the breakdown of the supply chain and environmental impacts. The user can then make quick changes on the diagram to assess everything from costs, risks and environmental impacts.

“We try to string together the entire value chain from extraction from the earth to end of life, landfill incinerator or whatever,” says D’Souza. “We put that in the context of cost, environmental impact and regulations. This is tremendous because these are digital twins and not just a nice graph. They are a live model where you can say, ‘If I change where I make this, what’s the change to the cost, environment and regulations?’”

The digital twins D’Souza and his software help engineers make vary in complexity. They could model a bridge made from tons of steel or a small plastic toy. Engineers can also use them to study different granularities of the overall system. In this context, questions like the tradeoffs between steel or aluminum bolts is just as reasonable to assess as the tradeoffs of the bridge being of a truss or suspension setup. The important thing is that the LCA reporting is implemented at a level engineers can use.

“The digital twin is not designed as a finished product. It offers the information you need to decide if you’re going down the right direction or not,” adds D’Souza. “Typically, you need experts to use LCA tools and they require a finished bill of materials (BOM). Then they only tell you one answer.” In comparison, these digital twins are fast, connect to engineering tools such as CAD, PLM and CAE, and are designed for engineers—or even laypeople—to use. And considering that Makersite has a new partnership with Autodesk, it won’t be long before engineers will be able to access the tool directly through A360 software.

The power of these digital twins doesn’t end with quantifying environmental tradeoffs in design. Cost reduction, customer feedback, futureproofing, revenue growth, regulation requirements and risk management can all be evaluated using these twins. And as those factors continue to improve, revenues and environmental impacts benefit, as well as the reputation of the organization.

To learn more about sustainability tools for product design, visit Makersite.