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A Sneak Peek at Designing Electronics for the Environment

IT manufacturers can cut production costs, open new markets and gain a competitive edge by building systems that maximize energy use, minimize materials and can be reused to the greatest extent possible.

Yet despite reporting every day on the benefits of energy efficient technology and applying IT's measuring, monitoring and management capabilities to every business practice, the vast majority of green IT projects stop at the implementation level, rather than digging deeper to the design level.

So why aren't more firms looking at Design for Environment (DfE) principles?

"There's a lack of knowledge and education, and [DfE] is being driven by regulation," Mike Kirschner, the president of Design Chain Associates, explained in a recent phone conversation. "A lot of companies have blinders on -- they're focused on compliance and that's the end of it."

In some ways, it's fortunate that companies are at least thinking about it, even if it's only when they're forced to do so by laws like Europe's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directives. The move toward greener practices in IT equipment parallels the evolution over the last 20 years of green business practices in general: Moving from green for compliance's sake to green for the environmental, economic and strategic benefits it offers.

Design Chain Associates is partnering with Technology Forecasters, Inc. to present a 90-minute webinar on DfE principles on April 7 to bring the ideas and practices home to IT professionals, especially those working at small- to medium-sized businesses.

Pamela Gordon, the president and founder of TFI, literally wrote the book on DfE in electronics back in 2001, but since Lean and Green: Profit for Your Workplace and the Environment was published, surprisingly little has changed in companies' attitudes toward DfE.

"I'm just sometimes still surprised about how slowly DfE is getting adopted at companies," Gordon told me last week. "DfE principles have been available for some time, and I think it really is the [responsibility of] executive management at electronics companies. They can do a better job of requiring of their designers certain thresholds of environmental attributes that get passed to R&D and engineering managers and to the engineers themselves."

Kirchner agrees that leadership on green electronics design has to come from the top levels of a company, and sees progress at least in the awareness that the industry as a whole now knows just how little it understands about designing with the environment in mind.

The webinar takes place twice on April 7, once aimed at East Coast and European audiences (at 7 AM Pacific Time), and once aimed at West Coast and Asian audiences (at 4:00 PM Pacific Time). And a key element of the 90-minute event focuses on a checklist for DfE practices and principles that attendees can put to work "the very next day," Gordon said.

The slow adoption of DfE in tech companies is not due to a lack of interest or concern about environmental problems, but the aforementioned lack of awareness and leadership from executives.

Where some of the IT industry's giants, like IBM, Hewlett Packard, Dell and Apple are driving their suppliers to meet environmental standards and code of conduct requirements, those top-level firms are facing pressure from stakeholders that just doesn't exist for the SMEs that Kirschner and Gordon are targeting.

"[The largest IT companies] are getting raked across the coals by Greenpeace and so soon, the message gets to executive management that either there's a problem or an opportunity here," Kirschner said. "But these are not consumer-facing companies -- they are not in Greenpeace's crosshairs."

In addition to giving attendees the checklist of DfE practices, the webinar will walk through some of the technical processes that DfE embraces, and standards like EPEAT that can help structure their efforts. And the webinar will showcase two companies that have successfully adopted DfE into their products.

{related_content}What it comes down to is building a new level of performance specification into electronics design. Trained as an electrical engineer, Kirschner laid out the problem as most engineers are experiencing it.

"We didn't learn anything about this stuff as an electrical engineer. We learned how to specify technical functionality, and business functionality, but that's it," he said. Those two are now and will remain important, but by specifying environmental performance, DfE can become second nature to designers.

"Engineers tell us that they care about the environment, they want to do the right thing, and for the most part they understand that it can only be competitive advantage if their product performs better and greener," Gordon said. "But they don't know what to do about it, and this webcast is a start of giving them some tools about what to do."

Design Chain Associates and Technology Forecasters, Inc. regularly conduct longer versions of this webinar with clients, and they find that understanding DfE concepts is the only small obstacle preventing companies from incorporating them into products.

"One thing we're really good at doing in electronics is optimizing the heck out of things," Kirschner said. "We are so good at making things faster and smaller and so on. If we can just do that for environmental performance, then we can do amazing things. But management has to take on the challenge."

The webinar, "DCA/TFI Design For Environment and Competitive Advantage Webinar," takes place on Wednesday, April 7, at 7 AM and 4 PM Pacific Time. Registration is US$149 and more information is online at

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