I had a conversation on sustainable product development with Eric Leafquist, a product manager at Dassault-Systemes-SolidWorks. SolidWorks is a leading supplier of 3D design software tools that let you create, simulate, publish, and manage your data.
Driven partly by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the leading reporting format used in sustainability reporting, companies are beginning a journey to take an end to end view of sustainability surrounding the products they produce. GRI’s latest guidelines ask participants to report quantitatively the extent to which environmental impacts of products and service have been mitigated during the reporting period. They also ask companies to report the percentage of reclaimed product and their packaging materials for each product category. In other words, there is increasing pressure for companies to understand not just their cumulative environmental impacts, but how each product contributes to that total.
I asked how far companies had moved toward sustainable product development. According to Eric, it is much like what I have seen surrounding supply chain sustainability (IBM’s Sourcing Teams Are a Critical Cog In Their Sustainability Efforts); many companies are relatively early in their journey.
In designing a product, 3D software solutions can be used to help pick the materials to be used in the product, look at the sustainability impacts from the manufacturing and supply chain processes, and design the packaging. According to Eric, what he has mainly seen is companies focused on the “easy stuff.” The “easy stuff” involves changes to product packaging. “It is way easier than product.”
When companies design a product, they can look at how the design impacts costs, function, sustainability, and compliance. Looking at these dimensions together “can create win-win-win options.” But in many industries what Eric is seeing is cost being the most important driver in product design, and sustainability, while growing in importance, still being a less important factor.
There are exceptions. A leading European automotive company which produces cars for Germany implemented a redesign program to improve the recyclability of their cars. They were able to reduce the number of plastics used in the car from approximately 20 to 6. That reduced the landfill impacts because when the car is disassembled, there is less sorting of plastics into different containers, and thus a higher percentage of the plastics will get recycled.
Eric talked about the “paradox of cost.” Not everything that you would think would drive costs up actually does; and not everything that you would think would reduce costs, does. For example, sustainability concerns might drive a company to examine more expensive inputs. In general, you might expect that when a company uses fewer plastics, there would be less ability to use lower cost plastics. But when a company does this type of analysis, they might find that the use of stronger, more expensive plastic reduces the total amount of material needed in the product, and actually makes the product cheaper. On the other hand, a company might look at using lower cost recycled plastic in a product, which you would think would reduce the cost, but they might discover this requires more processing time in manufacturing and that it actually drives costs up. Further, if products are made with less durable recycled materials, the total lifecycle of the product might be shortened, leading to more material in landfills.
Even a decision on production volumes can have sustainability impacts. Many companies introduce a new product, work the kinks out, and then add more expensive capital equipment and new design iterations that make assembly easier. “In general, if a product has less parts and is easy to assemble, then it is probably easier to disassemble.” A decision to manufacture to scale from the start can mean the product will have lower landfill impacts.
Clearly, there are very complex dynamics and tradeoffs at work in product design. Eric believes SOLIDWORKS was the first 3D CAD supplier to offer an integrated life cycle assessment-based sustainability module along with FEA simulation tools, cost analysis, plastics simulation and electrical system design tools to help with those tradeoffs. They introduced their SOLIDWORKS Sustainability solution in 2007. Other CAD suppliers now offer similar solutions.
These solutions allow design engineers to conduct life cycle assessment (LCA) on parts or assemblies by searching for comparable materials and seeing in real time how those materials affect the environmental impact. Their solutions provides material wizards that provide real-time feedback on environmental impact in four key areas: the carbon footprint, total energy consumed, effect on water, and effect on air.
This LCA information in the SOLIDWORKS solution is generated through a database and material/process model created by thinkstep (previously known as PE International), a provider of sustainable design and software services. These tools enable the user to easily compare designs and to track the relative environmental impact of changes from one version of a design to the next.
This is an iterative process. Once the product engineers have more sustainable product designs, they then model those designs in the range of SOLIDWORKS software solutions to understand the sourcing costs, validate function, safety, and production costs.
For an upstream supplier to a big OEM with a robust sustainability program, this solution can provide sustainability reports that can be used to show the OEM why the company has made the design, material and production choices that they have made.
SOLIDWORKS Sustainability software also has an Environmental Impact Dashboard that allows an engineer to estimate environmental impacts for each stage of a product’s life cycle including: raw materials extraction, upstream manufacturing, modal moves of materials across a multitier supply chain, product use, and end of life. Clearly, LCA sustainable modules integrated with 3D CAD need to be one of the critical tools used to design not just sustainable products, but also sustainable supply chains.
Once you look at the tradeoffs, and how 3D CAD with integrated LCA tools can improve sustainable product design, the claim that “70 to 80 percent of a sustainability rating is impacted early in the design cycle” becomes credible. In short, waste is a design flaw.