When manufacturers discuss the design process, a frequent conversation topic is how to do more with less. Surprising to some, incorporating sustainable design strategies is a way to do just that. Traditionally defined in the Brundtland Report from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development as focused on "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," sustainable design is commonly focused on conserving resources and making the least environmentally impactful products possible. Clearly, sustainability has grown as an industry-wide movement beyond just the concept of recycling materials, and many manufacturing companies are going green.
In fact, a recent American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)-Autodesk sponsored survey found for the second consecutive year that two-thirds of the practicing engineers responding have worked on sustainable product design, and more than half expect to increase their use of sustainable design practices in the next year. There is no disputing that sustainability is an issue on the minds of engineers designing products today.
Even in a stormy economy, manufacturers are integrating sustainability into their corporate strategy to drive both profits and growth. Taking action on sustainability can help drive efficiency and help stay in front of regulatory and voluntary standards. It can also provide business benefits including competitive advantage, risk management and open up new market opportunities.
Specific examples of sustainable design practices include:
- Using less energy and fewer materials in the production process lowers overhead and product costs. Switching to more sustainable materials can reduce waste, emissions and pollution.
- Regulatory pressures will likely continue to increase and expand to cover materials and products (such as restricted substances lists, mandated manufacturer take-back programs and mounting regulations around quantifying greenhouse gas emissions, to name a few). Proactively reducing the CO2 footprint of a product now can avert or minimize negative regulatory impacts later.
- Major corporations and public agencies increasingly demand emissions reporting and mitigation plans from their supply chain partners. Earning a valued third-party certification designation puts products on the short list for businesses and government agencies that have implemented environmentally preferable purchasing policies.
- The reality is that in today's business environment, sustainability is still a competitive differentiator and is quickly becoming an expected part of doing business in the global economy.
Sharing commonalities from proven improvement methodologies such as Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma, manufacturers can implement a sustainable design methodology to improve business operations, new product design and the entire product development process.
A sustainable implementation of Lean process principles, for example, would look forward through a product creation process to find inefficiencies and unnecessary steps in the process, and then work backward to analyze the impact of the choices made in materials and production processes on the product's overall sustainability.
Digital Prototyping and Sustainability
Once the desired outcome is chosen-for example, lowering energy use during production by 20 percent-the design team can pick a strategy such as reducing the number of heat-treating operations and analyze the inputs and process steps to understand the impact of each on the outcome. The team can then build a 3D digital prototype with advanced design software to facilitate early decision-making and analysis. As the model develops, it becomes a more accurate digital prototype of the product, reflecting the material attributes including weight, strength, recycled content and process attributes like energy intensity in processing.
The team can experiment with alternatives that might better achieve the desired goal. The digital prototype can help predict the impact of proposed changes on the product's characteristics and the energy consumed during its manufacture and use. In this example, the team might consider using plastics that require less energy in processing. Experimenting with different scenarios inside the digital prototyping environment will reveal the feasible and cost-effective options. If the market or regulatory environment changes, the product can quickly be optimized to meet the latest conditions.
As the product design evolves from concept through engineering and on to production, it can be tested, modified and optimized to achieve the desired outcome. Sharing a single digital model among multiple team members throughout the process helps communicate sustainable design intent, and it keeps them aligned and focused on achieving the intended result.
The digital model can also be used to simulate stress and performance tests to facilitate compliance with safety standards. Rather than building physical prototypes, the optimized design can be tested and broken virtually before spending a dollar on materials or labor.
Design software firms are also adding new capabilities to support sustainable design and address design challenges concerning material optimization, material selection and energy efficiency. A wide range of simulation tools are available for manufacturers to design, visualize and simulate products to help support sustainable design practices. Manufacturers are assessing how a design will perform by simulating the product's behavior using various amounts and types of materials. This understanding helps to facilitate optimized material usage and the viability of using material with a low environmental impact.
Here are just a few examples of manufacturers relying on Digital Prototyping to achieve sustainable product designs:
- The South African firm ADEPT Airmotive produced a 320-horsepower general aviation engine that is 28% lighter than traditional piston engines of comparable horsepower. The engine also reduces fuel use and associated greenhouse gas emissions by about 30%.
- Professional flooring systems company HTC Sweden increased the strength of its diamond-based concrete floor grinding systems while reducing overall product weight. Using tools such as sheet metal analysis, HTC designers optimized the metal frames in their products, helping to decrease the amount of materials used by 10%-20%.
- Big Toys, a commercial playground equipment manufacturer out of Olympia, Washington, redesigned an entire product line in less than half of the time it had traditionally taken. They also greatly reduced development, labor and material costs, and virtually eliminated waste, while using 100% recycled plastic and recycled galvanized steel.
Looking ahead, the next generation of product designers also appears ready to embrace sustainability. The ASME-Autodesk survey polled student members, and half of the student respondents reported that they have encountered sustainable design practices in their studies and are extremely interested in green and sustainable information and causes as they prepare to engineer the products of the future.
Sarah H. Krasley, Industry Manager, Autodesk, Inc. Autodesk, Inc., is a provider of 2D and 3D design, engineering and entertainment software for the manufacturing, building and construction and media and entertainment markets.
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