SPECIAL REPORT/EARTH DAY: Sustainable Design: Not Just for Architecture Anymore

Sustainable design is a comprehensive, holistic approach to creating products and systems that are environmentally benign, socially equitable, and economically viable: environmentally, so the design offers obvious or measurable environmental benefits; socially, so it fills the needs of everyone involved in its production, use, and disposal or reuse; and economically, so the design is competitive in the marketplace. Fuel-efficient cars, solar-heated buildings, clean-burning power plants, recyclable packaging and low-voltage lighting are all examples of products that help balance consumer needs with good environmental stewardship.

Yet realistically, all products have the potential to be designed with sustainability in mind if engineers really think about making products better while using materials that positively affect the environment. Implementing the practical aspects of sustainable design involves the following considerations:
  • Minimal material use. Can you change the wall thickness of a part from a half-inch to three-eighths of an inch without compromising its functionality?
  • Improved material choices. Is there a material that wasn’t available 10 years ago that would make this part easier to produce, recycle or transport-for the same cost?
  • Ease of disassembly. Can the product be designed to be taken apart, either for repair or selective recycling?
  • Product reuse or recycling. Can the product be designed in a modular fashion so that one part can be replaced to upgrade its function? For example, throwaway cell phones could be updated by selling a consumer-replaceable slide-in memory/function board.
  • Minimal energy consumption. Is there a different method or machine for building or operating the system that uses less energy to run?
  • Manufacture without producing hazardous waste.
  • Use of clean technologies as a fundamental mindset.
Why is a new way of thinking economically important? Demand for natural resources is growing faster than the available supply, which drives up costs at the same time that new environmental directives must also be met. Fortunately, small design changes-based on optimized amounts of carefully chosen, modern materials that are manufactured with minimal energy/resource usage-generate large ripple effects in the overall sustainable lifecycle and offer the extra benefit of an improved competitive edge in the global market.

A Lifecycle Approach

Human nature makes us believe it’s easier to keep things as they are, even against persuasive arguments to the contrary. New products often merely reflect a progression of incremental changes based on legacy designs and procedures. Think of how a car is assembled: although robotics has played a huge role in the past few decades, the overall assembly process still follows the structure laid down by Henry Ford. Worse yet, steps such as gluing and welding have replaced screwing or bolting in many areas, making it impossible to open subassemblies for repair and requiring that they be trashed and completely replaced.

At the same time, traditional material costs are rushing upward: the price index for non-manufactured goods rose from less than 70 (representing the actual price when compared to an average value set to 100) in 1995 to more than 170 (a 70% increase over the norm) in 2005. Rising prices for steel and crude oil are also reflected in manufacturing and shipping costs, and yet consumers keep demanding lower prices. What can be done to balance or lower these costs?

The U.S. leads the way in product design. To maintain this leadership as both economic and social pressures for sustainable design grow stronger, the traditional reluctance to change basic principles can and must fade. Manufacturers are now asking themselves:
  • What do the raw materials cost?
  • How environmentally benign is the processing and handling?
  • What amount of energy does it take to use this material?
  • Is there a material that costs the same but is easier to recycle?
  • Is there a new material that is so strong we can now use less of it to make an existing part with the same durability?
At the same time, many different industry, government and university groups have developed numerical methods for evaluating the relative environmental impact of different material, processing and transport choices. Dozens of savvy worldwide companies have already put years of effort into incorporating some or all of these design elements in industries ranging from furniture and flooring to telecommunications and tools. For example:
  • IKEA has made a science of the design of its assemble-it-yourself furniture. The packaging for most pieces comprises flat boxes that stack efficiently in delivery trucks for minimum trip/fuel expenses.
  • BASF helps automotive manufacturers save time and money with hybrid UV/thermal coatings that cut back on outgassing and thus minimize volatile emissions or possible bubbling defects during the paint-curing process.
  • IBM started implementing a formal ISO 4001 environmental management system across all of its global manufacturing and hardware development operations, as well as all of its business units, more than 10 years ago. Building on previous efforts to ensure environmental considerations is a routine part of all business decisions.
  • Whirlpool has been named ENERGY STAR® Partner of the Year multiple times and has been internationally recognized for its commitment to environmental packaging, production and design.
  • BMW’s recycling center takes new car models and dismantles them, testing the effectiveness of the disassembly process as some parts are designed for re-use and others for recycling. The group feeds information back to the design center.
  • The DeWalt family of industrial power tools uses a modular design approach so that a single model of rechargeable 14.4-volt battery fits into all of the tools in the 14.4-volt product line (e.g., drill, power saw, flashlight, etc.).
Looking at the big picture is a great way to identify specific product design tasks that can be reevaluated to lessen their contributions to the overall environmental impact. For a product manufacturing process, a lifecycle analysis (LCA) identifies the energy and waste (solid, airborne and waterborne) associated with each relevant stage, including raw material extraction; material processing; component manufacturing; assembly and packaging; distribution and purchase; installation and use; maintenance and upgrading; and end-of-life, including material recycling, component and product reuse, landfilling and incineration.

Lasting Benefits

Although there will always be tradeoffs when evaluating the details of sustainable designs, the long-term benefits (and we must look long-term) are undeniable and include a reduced impact on the environment; the use of clean technologies for everyday living, construction and manufacturing; reduced water treatment costs; less waste going to landfills; soil, air and water pollution prevention; the preservation of forests and biodiversity; reduced climate change; and product reuse or recycling at end of life.

Tradeoffs are best analyzed with precise software products that provide results that can be repeated, shared and analyzed by all departments in an organization, from design and manufacturing to marketing and transportation. Forward-planning companies are more profitable than reactive, defensive companies, and those that improve their competitive position may also keep jobs from going overseas. Software that enables sustainable design processes at all stages of a product’s lifecycle is a critical tool for successfully operating in today’s design environment.

For more information regarding sustainable design, contact Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp., 300 Baker Ave., Concord, MA 01742; (800) 693-9000 or (978) 371-5011; e-mail info@solidworks.com; or visit the website at www.solidworks.com.

Editor’s note: This article is based on a white paper produced by Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp. Information reprinted with permission.


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