The age of environmental awareness is upon us. Consumers are conscious of the impact of their buying behavior, and they are demanding more sustainable products. Historically, products have been manufactured with little regard to pollution and resource depletion, except when bound by regulation. However, market demand has become the new driver: consumers are expecting the products they purchase to be made responsibly. A recent CIMData eBook says consumers not only favor sustainable products, but they are also willing to pay a premium for them.
Manufacturers that recognize this trend are seeking more sustainable ways to design, manufacture, and service their products. In meeting this market demand, they are also addressing the increasing pressure from governments to comply with more stringent environmental regulations.
Due to this push and pull, from regulatory agencies and customers respectively, product sustainability initiatives are now a top priority for manufacturers. To be a leader in this new competitive landscape, manufacturers must evaluate their operations and entire product lifecycles to identify opportunities for efficiencies. Critically, it is the product design and engineering phases, before the products are ever made, that will yield the greatest impact on sustainability.
In their book The Upcycle, authors Michael Braungart and William McDonough state, “Human beings don't have a pollution problem; they have a design problem. If humans were to devise products, tools, furniture, homes, factories, and cities more intelligently from the start, they wouldn't even need to think in terms of waste, contamination, or scarcity. Good design would allow for abundance, endless reuse, and pleasure.”
Sustainable design is the process of designing products in a way that reduces their negative impact on the environment and human health while increasing opportunities for product reuse and recyclability. This includes designing for waste and pollution reduction, contributing to a circular economy, reducing the product's carbon footprint, establishing traceability, and making supply chains more ethical and transparent.
Following a circular economy model, products should be designed to be reused and recycled. The decisions made during the initial design are critical as 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined during this phase, according to the journal of Sustainable Production and Consumption. It is harder to turn back and redesign products and re-plan processes in later stages of the lifecycle.
Sustainable design enables enterprise teams to come up with ideas and develop prototypes according to their green strategies. Engineers can implement sustainable adaptations such as reducing emissions and making consumables recyclable and more efficient. By designing for sustainability and how efficient a product is throughout its lifecycle, designers can better dictate how a product will impact the environment.
Sustainable design techniques are part of a strategy that can help companies reduce raw material and energy consumption; enable companies to compete in markets with strict environmental and safety regulations; and improve brand reputation and goodwill. When designing products with sustainability in mind, manufacturers should consider the following sustainable design techniques:
Upcycling – Upcycling involves converting a low-value or discarded product into a high-value product. There may or may not be a need to break down the old product into its primary materials. Upcycling can use pre-consumer or post-consumer waste or a combination of the two. For example, a Dutch company called Rebottled upcycles empty wine bottles into designer glassware. This has prevented 140,000 glass bottles from going to waste. It’s also enabled the energy that was originally used to create the glass bottles to be preserved. Similarly, Tommy Hilfiger has launched jeans made out of 100% recycled cotton. The sustainable denim is the result of research from the PVH Denim Center in Amsterdam, which is dedicated to setting new standards for producing denim efficiently and in a more environmentally friendly way.
Design for disassembly (DFD) – DFD involves designing products in a way that simplifies their dismantling process. The benefits of DFD include:
With DFD, products are designed to be dismantled for recovery of important reusable components, and for simple maintenance where the separation process is cost effective. This minimizes waste and scrap of products by allowing reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling.
Design for longevity – When speaking of design for longevity, it’s important to think how a product’s lifecycle is defined. Longevity is defined as how long a product can perform any desired function over a certain period of time. The goal of designing for longevity is to design products with an optimal lifetime in mind. Note: optimizing a product’s lifetime does not necessarily mean maximizing it, even in the case of sustainability.
The terms green design and sustainable design are often used interchangeably by manufacturers. Both concepts focus on creating more environmentally-conscious and resource-efficient products. However, there are slight nuances to their meanings:
Green design – Green design is the principle of designing products to be more environmentally conscious and efficient in their use of resources. The manufacturer should not only reduce the consumption of energy and materials and the emission of harmful substances, but also ensure the products and components are designed in a way that they are easy to sort, recycle or reuse.
Sustainable design – Sustainable design is a more holistic approach. In addition to designing for energy efficiency, reduction of material consumption and minimization of pollution, it also addresses the long-term environmental impact of the product and its social acceptance.
Designing and manufacturing products for recyclability, reuse, and energy efficiency requires fully understanding a product throughout its lifecycle. Ensuring a product can be sustainably sourced, built, distributed, used, serviced, and disposed of is largely determined during the design phase. This is where product lifecycle management (PLM) can enable green strategies starting in the design department.
Managing a product along its lifecycle creates lots of information. It’s very important for sustainability minded manufacturers to be able to capture and correlate this product lifecycle data to inform each successive generation of products. PLM for green engineering allows enterprise teams to manage all data related to a product as a single source of truth. This includes metrics like CO2 emissions, lifetime until product retirement, sustainable material usage, and sustainable supplier certifications. By taking advantage of PLM’s seamless data sharing and implementing a digital thread across the enterprise, designers and engineers can create better, more sustainable products.
For example, manufacturers with visibility and traceability into a product’s CO2 footprint throughout its lifecycle have a baseline to improve upon, perhaps through more sustainable procurement or manufacturing processes.
Pollution and the depletion of resources are impacting our planet and its ecosystems. And the effects of it can be felt everywhere. It is critical to adopt more sustainable manufacturing practices starting with sustainable design. Adopting green strategies can be a major undertaking for any manufacturer. With PLM as the foundation for design-driven sustainability, organizations can engage in more environmentally-conscious practices while increasing cost-effectiveness and efficiency.
Utilize digital thread capabilities to support sustainability initiatives