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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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,
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
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.
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 email@example.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.