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Thinking in Systems

Closing the eco-design gap through corporate-academic partnerships

Creating a new generation of designers, managers and executives fluent in designing with environmental considerations will require that companies invest in their current and future talent pool.

This is the first article in Thinking in Systems, a new column from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco and Seattle.

This year, I had the honor of leading a team of electronics industry volunteers in drafting an Eco-Design roadmap for the International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative. Our team’s vision for 2038 is that 90 percent of global electronic products embed Eco-Design principles, which help to reverse global warming, eliminate e-waste and reduce costly inefficiencies throughout product life.

The 2019 iNEMI Eco-Design Team comprises volunteers from CALSTART, ECD Compliance, Flex, Green Electronics Council, Oracle, Presidio Graduate School and Thermo Fisher Scientific.

Inspiring, but why wait 20 years?

The 90 percent goal would be met much earlier if the world’s electronics executives already provided eco-design training for all product-launch teams — product launch teams typically include product concept, product-and-package design, supply chain and manufacturing, logistics and reverse logistics, and product management — and rewarded them for aggressively pursuing leadership-level eco-design goals throughout their products, packaging and business models.

Alas, this is not yet the case. Most electronics companies react only to hazardous-substance and recycling regulations, instead of proactively improving their products’ life-cycle efficiencies, as the graphic below shows. Designers seek to increase their products’ energy efficiency as driven by markets and standards, yet most have not received corporate direction to address strategic aims including circular economy strategies.

Plus, most product-launch teams at today’s electronics companies have not had the benefit of attending academic programs comprising life-cycle engineering and other eco-design courses. And only a few business schools offer degrees centered on sustainability and circular economy.


Electronics companies and colleges are working together to close the eco-design gap. It’s a win-win collaboration, because employees actively designing and influencing product design need real-time eco-design training and assistance, and college students receiving eco-design and life-cycle education want pre-graduation experience of working with products, packaging, supply-chain and circular economic models.

These are some mutually advantageous ways that electronics companies work with academic institutions to accelerate eco-design acumen and benefits.

  • Commission graduate-student projects: At Presidio Graduate School during the fall 2018 semester, three companies whose products include electronics are tapping teams of four to five graduate students to minimize supplier-provided packaging waste (Flex), meet new international product-stewardship requirements (Thermo Fisher Scientific) and align supply-chains with Eco-Design improvements (a division of Westinghouse). In each case, the students earn 50 percent of their grade in Operations and Supply-Chain Management through successful planning and execution of their projects. The electronics companies deploy Presidio Graduate School students semester after semester owing to the value they receive.

    Last semester, Flex leveraged a team of six Presidio Graduate School students to run a kaizen on zero-waste in In Flex’s Silicon Valley manufacturing facility. "The deliverable yielded valuable insights into a complex operation and enabling future lean manufacturing activities, and spoke well to the quality of Presidio Graduate School's efficacy in sustainability solutions," said Bruce Klafter, vice president, corporate social and environmental responsibility at Flex. Now, for the fall 2018 semester, a new team of Presidio Graduate School students will follow up the first project for Flex, concentrating on minimizing packaging waste.
  • Support academic researchers with materials and funding. Electronics companies can collaborate with or support higher-education institutions, specific researchers or classes to solve specific eco-design challenges. For example, a company with an energy-storage or material-replacement challenge can support an academic research team by providing materials and a budget. Members of the corporate team can visit classes to interject relevant and real challenges into course projects, where the outcomes are proposed solutions to the problem.
  • Educate current and potential employees: Companies can invest and participate in developing higher-education curriculum at campuses proximal to hiring locations. For example, make eco-design principles part of mechanical engineering curriculum or incorporate green chemistry into chemical engineering curriculum. The result is access to an applicant pool with desired eco-design knowledge and strategic thinking. Another advantage to the company is the ability to send existing employees to these local certificate or degree programs.
  • Train employees and suppliers, online or in-person: To ensure continuous improvement and engagement in eco-design, companies are leveraging graduate schools to train entire product-launch teams — including strategic suppliers — in successively more advanced eco-design principles. Most large electronics companies have designers and certainly suppliers globally, for which online training makes sense; in-person modules and live webinars can provide experiential learning.
  • Educate customers: To continue to drive demand for eco-designed products, companies can leverage academic partners to educate customers about the benefits of products beyond the technical functionality: lower operational costs; reduced risk to brand; environmental benefits; social responsibility; life-cycle thinking; and stakeholder engagement. The academic partnership can educate small-scale to large-scale purchasers on priority environmental, business and social impacts of the products they consider.
  • Deploy tools for eco-design: Education in eco-design should include training in life-cycle assessment, applications pointing to and tracking eco-design advances, cost-savings analysis and other tools fostering measurable, competitive and continuous eco-design improvements. Many life-cycle assessment software companies offer attractive academic discounts, which students leverage for learning.

Executives mandating eco-design

It’s not enough for companies only to offer eco-design education to employees; executives also need to mandate eco-design and incentivize product-launch teams to meet increasing levels of cost-savings, brand advantage, market access, energy efficiency and circularity through eco-design. Management tools and incentives can include performance evaluations, recognition, bonuses or additional company-sponsored education. Education can be through required college courses, on-site eco-design trainings customized to companies' products and industry standards bodies.

Continuous education in eco-design principles and strategies for employees, potential employees, suppliers, customers and other stakeholders is needed to drive further adoption of eco-design in the electronics industry. To meet the vision of incorporated eco-design into 80 percent (by volume) of products by 2028, it is essential for 100 percent of product-launch teams and key suppliers to understand the vast environmental, societal and techno-economic benefits of eco-design.

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