Using Software to Design Sustainability into the Manufacturing Process

Using Software to Design Sustainability into the Manufacturing Process

As the world of manufacturing gets increasingly more high-tech, there are a growing number of tools that can help companies focus on reducing energy and materials use at every stage from concept to production.

A webcast convened by GreenBiz.com yesterday brought together three experts who are focused on various aspects of sustainable design and manufacturing to share what's possible and what's already happening on factory floors around the world.

"The secret reason for sustainble design is that it reduces costs," said Patrick Coulter, the Chief Operating Officer at Granta Design and one of the presenters on the webcast.

He offered two examples: Walmart and the Dyson Airblade hand dryer. Both are examples of how designing with sustainability in mind save significant costs -- whether in terms of energy used by other hand-dryers or in terms of rethinking entire production, supply and retail lines to trim waste, as in the case of the world's largest retailer.

In addition to reducing costs, sustainable design is driven by a desire to reduce risk. While legislative risk is the primary element here -- especially for European manufacturers and Europe-facing retailers, with their REACH, WEEE, RoHS and other regulations -- there are also well known brand risks and risks to supplies of materials that could be impacted by environmental changes.

philps marketingIn addition to risks, there is also the benefit of increased sales as companies target increasingly (at least outside of the U.S.) green-minded shoppers. Coulter offered Philips as an example, which is marketing some of its devices for their lower impacts (pictured at right).

Coulter offered a number of tips on how to go about designing for sustainability, and more importantly, building sustainability into the design process early and often.

The first step is to estimate where the biggest impacts are for each product -- is it manufacturing, transportation, use or end-of life? -- so that designers can focus their efforts where smaller amounts of work will have bigger impacts.

Once you've got that map of where a product's impacts lie, then you can craft the "objective" of the eco-design. The chart below lays out how a sustainable-minded design process can cut impacts from any phase of life.

It is critical, Coulter said, to focus on sustainability early in the design process, since that's where the biggest impacts can be felt.

David Dornfeld, the department Chair and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley and one of the presenters on yesterday's webcast, backed him up on that point by saying that he sees rapid growth in interest in sustainable manufacturing and sustainable design among his graduate and undergraduate students.

Next page: developing the tools to spread sustainable design

And running alongside a growth in demand for learning these types of tools is similarly rapid growth in the sophistication of methods for measuring and improving the impacts of manufacturing at almost any level.

Whether it's adding new coatings to individual tools on the assembly line, reorganizing the line itself for greater efficiency, or reimagining how the factory itself is laid out, Dornfeld said there are nearly limitless opportunities to make big improvements in the energy use of a manufacturing system.

The final presenter in yesterday's webcast is involved in helping to make some of those tools a reality. Sarah Krasley, a Product Manager for Sustainability at Autodesk, talked about how the software tools that Autodesk has been developing for years can shape design practices now as well as reengineer a greener future for products and processes.

Among the tools that Krasley discussed yesterday was Autodesk's Eco Materials Adviser, part of a design suite that lets companies take products from sketch to 3D modeling to mechanical engineering all in a virtual capacity.

The mechanical engineering aspect in particular offers sustainability benefits, Krasley said, because it lets engineers both see what the impacts of a given design for a product would be along its entire lifecycle, but also helps them make the business case for shifting to a more sustainable material.

Autodesk has also created tutorials to help mid-career design professionals embrace these same sustainability tools that engineering students are learning at college, and the company is also encouraging its software customers to create and upload videos for disassembly and end-of-life disposal to its Inventor Publisher software system, to help demanufacturers and others easily reuse or recycle products at the end of their useful lives.

At the closing of yesterday's webcast, moderator (and GreenBiz.com's executive editor) Joel Makower asked each panelist to give one piece of advice or closing thought on how to push sustainable design forward.

Sarah Krasley: "Start where they are."

David Dornfeld: "Instill young designers with the potential that this can be done, and be done cost-effectively."

Patrick Coulter: "Designers and engineers can achieve almost anything if they set their minds to it.... So we need tools that can insert sustainable design into the normal design process."

The archive of the free webcast will be available to the public to listen to for the next 12 months. You can find more details about it here.