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The Future of Green

By Mark Clarkson

The Future of Green
The life cycle analysis summary of an assembly, generated by PTC InSight, shows the estimated embodied energy and emissions.

There is no such thing as a green product, asserts Sustainable Minds’ CEO Terry Swack. “All products use materials and energy, and create waste. The best we can do is make products ‘greener.’”

It’s natural to think of green design in terms of end-of-life recycling, or maybe the use of recycled materials, but it goes a little deeper than that. To make products greener, designers must become eco-designers, paying particular attention to the environmental impact of a product throughout its entire lifecycle—from procurement through manufacturing, use and disposal.

Eco-design is bound with life cycle analysis (LCA), which attempts to compute what a product’s environmental impact is in all its manifestations, from the discharge of toxic chemicals through to noise, vibration and social disruptions. The problem is, LCAs can be difficult, costly and time-consuming. They require plenty of obscure scientific expertise, and are somewhat ambiguous.

If you want to calculate the environmental impact of your product, you have to know where the parts and materials come from and what, exactly, is in them. You also need to know:

• how—and where—everything will be manufactured;
• how much electricity and water the processes use;
• how much pollution (and what types) is released;
• how and where the product will be used;
• how it will be packaged for shipment;
• how it will be transported, and
• what will become of that packaging once the customer unwraps it.

We haven’t even gotten to the product’s actual use phase, let alone what happens to it at the end of its life.

You might also want to add in any special tariffs your products will incur based on the materials they’re made from and packaged in, and make special note of upcoming changes to pertinent government regulations.

Case in Point: Nucor Steel
Nucor Steel Marion, Inc., of Marion, OH, melts and recycles scrap steel into new steel parts. Doing it right is a finicky process. You must carefully regulate the amount of energy based on the amount of scrap steel being melted. Overestimate the amount of steel going in, and you’ll use too much energy and overheat your batch. Overheat the batch, and the resulting new steel won’t be of acceptable quality.

When Nucor built a new reactor, it used National Instruments’ LabVIEW software and Compact FieldPoint hardware to create a new scale. The device lets the team know exactly how much steel they’re putting in, and how much electricity they’ll need to cook it properly.

They can also now change voltage based on operator input using the software and field-programmable gate arrays without having to first take the load off the reactor. This eliminates the fluctuations in power that previously caused problems within the plant.

Nucor has also gained the ability to monitor and record the process in real time, allowing the team to react much more quickly to changing conditions. The end result is they’re making a better product by using less energy, producing less waste and saving more money.

That’s a lot to ask of a designer who already has to worry about cost, strength, durability, safety and a thousand details inherent in their particular business and manufacturing processes—all the while trying to design a sexy new toothbrush.

Time to Move up Front
Of course, software already exists that could help out, but it is mostly employed by management and special costing engineers. The results haven’t been visible to the designer.

“Frequently, individual contributors go through the product development process largely unaware of how their decisions impact key performance criteria that ultimately determine the success of the product when it hits the field,” says Howard Heppelmann, vice president of Product Analytics solutions for PTC.

In addition, analyses that are done are often done too late, he says.

“Most companies today are measuring and monitoring these activities once they get into production,” he adds. “The designer finishes the design and passes it over the wall, and then somebody analyzes the production ]bill of material, or BOM] for REACH compliance, or carbon footprint. That process needs to happen up front. Rather than managing risk once a product is designed and released into production, prevent risk.”

Everybody’s Doing It
Moving LCA up front requires that designers and engineers have access to LCA tools as they’re designing. And those tools are indeed appearing. In fact, LCA capability is becoming common in design software. Consider what are probably the Top three on the desktop: PTC, Autodesk and SolidWorks.

PTC, for example, acquired Planet Metrics (and its Rapid Carbon Modeling program) in January 2010. Planet Metrics adds LCA capability to the PTC’s existing Product Analytics software, InSight, allowing designers to model the environmental cost of their product—carbon dioxide emissions, water used, etc.—along with its capital costs.

Autodesk has been in a special strategic relationship with the previously mentioned Sustainable Minds since late 2008. Sustainable Minds provides a Web-based LCA application that reads your BOM. With a little help, it models your product’s environmental impact—complete with an Okala number (a measure of environmental impact derived from the Okala LCA methodology) and an assortment of graphs and tables that deconstruct your product’s environmental impact.

Autodesk and materials information technology company, Granta Design Ltd., recently announced a new partnership, combining Autodesk’s digital prototyping vision with Granta’s materials information and eco design technology to help enable sustainable product design. The companies are co-developing software that will integrate Granta’s eco design methods into Autodesk software, helping designers estimate the environmental impact of a product and make more sustainable design decisions.

With SolidWorks 2010, Dassault Systèmes incorporates SustainabilityXpress, the light version of its Sustainability LCA modeler, directly into the SolidWorks application. Sustainability evaluates the environmental impact of parts and assemblies (Xpress only works on parts) and displays the results in four simple numbers: carbon emissions, energy consumed, and air and water pollution. Accompanying pie charts break down each metric into material, manufacturing, region of use and end of life.

Each of these applications allows you to evaluate, in some way, the environmental impact of your product while you’re still in the design stage. They also allow you to try different materials and manufacturing processes, to really dig down into your design and compare your options before actually committing to anything. It’s often the case that 80% of your opportunity to improve rests in 20% of your components. Even a very basic LCA will identify which 20% this is. You can focus your efforts where they’ll do the most good, looking for alternative materials and processes for the most problematic components.

Mountains of Data
These applications rely on one or more huge databases of relevant life cycle data to perform their LCAs. There are several, but the largest is maintained and licensed by ecoinvent Centre of Switzerland, which has thousands of datasets on everything from metals processing to waste treatment.

Beyond that, each application works its own magic to transform your product’s relationship to that mountain range of data into a few numbers and some easy-to-read graphics. The problem of reducing so much data to a few numbers is prodigious. And, it can be argued, it’s oversimplified and misleading to do so.

On the other hand, there’s a limit to how much data a product designer can process. It’s important to be able to see, at a glance, the difference in environmental impact between an aluminum part and a plastic one, for example. But it’s also important not to lose track of other important targets—consumers are generally unwilling to pay more for a product just because it’s green.

“Designers need to be able to see across dimensions, and have some visual indicators of how a decision in one area complements or contradicts a desired outcome in other, equally important areas,” says Heppelmann. “ If someone has myopia toward only improving the carbon footprint, there’s a chance they’re going to veer off target on other things like cost, reliability or safety.”

There are a lot of reasons to go green: It looks good to your customers; your company gets credit for innovating and becoming more sustainable; and such deep analysis of your product’s life will probably lead to cost savings. And if that those reasons aren’t good enough, well, you’ve probably got no choice. Your customers and their governments may demand it. Companies have legal obligations to make sure they’re managing the presence of toxic substances in their products. Failure to comply can cost you customers or even get you banned from the marketplace.

So since you probably don’t have a choice, why not take this opportunity to make the world a better place? After all, there’s an app for that.

More Info:
Autodesk, Inc.
ecoinvent Centre
National Instruments
Sustainable Minds

Contributing Editor Mark Clarkson is DE’s expert in visualization, computer animation, and graphics. His newest book is “Photoshop Elements by Example.” Visit him on the web at markclarkson.com or send e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.

About Mark Clarkson

Contributing Editor Mark Clarkson is Digital Engineering's expert in visualization, computer animation, and graphics. His newest book is Photoshop Elements by Example. Visit him on the web at MarkClarkson.com or send e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@digitaleng.news.