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How to Actually Improve Products, Cut Costs & Save the Planet

As product designers and engineers, we are responsible for putting hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of units of products on the market each year. Since our work occurs at the beginning of a product lifecycle, we have the opportunity – make that responsibility -- to effect change. Our position is that incremental changes, when multiplied by large number of units, can have a significant impact in terms of the environment.

Recently, the MIT Sloan Management Review surveyed 3,000 businesses and 60% responded that they are increasing their investment in sustainability. This is good news, but we’ve found that good intentions are sometimes blunted by a concern over costs and a lack of knowledge of how to actually implement more sustainable processes in product design.

We’ve been fortunate to work with several clients where we could demonstrate that more sustainable design processes would actually save them money and be relatively painless to integrate into their existing product development process.

Our incrementalism approach is focused on cost reduction because we think that this tangible benefit is most likely to gain support.

There are three large trends affecting product development right now:

  1. Global pressure to develop more sustainable products.
  2. Speed to Market pressure and
  3. Little appetite to invest significantly in a true sustainable approach in product development.

All the more reason to focus on tangible benefits (cost savings) and on small changes that can be implemented very quickly.  Focusing on the small steps – incremental changes – will increase the likelihood of client adaptation and the production of more sustainable products, the ultimate successful outcome we seek.

Evaluating a product’s environmental impact is called Life Cycle Analysis, or LCA.  Boiled down to its essence, life cycle analysis looks at five phases of every product’s life: Extraction (raw materials mining, cutting down trees, pumping new oil out of the ground); Manufacturing (materials and sub-assemblies through manufacture of final product); Transportation (both raw materials through transport of final product to customer); useful life of the product (how long does it last?) and finally, the end of useful life (What happens to the product now?) Ideally, it is recycled and goes onto some new life. More often, unfortunately, it’s incinerated or put into a landfill.

There are two approaches to LCA.  In- depth life cycle analysis may take months and tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars to capture every last specific detail about a process. In a truly in-depth LCA, its not enough to say you have a pound of ABS plastic in your design. You would have to know where the oil for the plastic came from, where the chemicals came from and how much energy went into their manufacturing, and where were they transported to and form. While this in-depth analysis is a powerful tool and appropriate for some companies, it doesn’t lend itself to quick and economical action in the context of product development.

Fortunately, there’s another way to go: we call it the “aggregate data base camp” which uses a similar thought process, but condenses it down using industry average data for each of the five steps and each of the materials and processes. So you would look at that same pound of ABS plastic and look at average environmental impacts that come from the industry as a whole.

This approach certainly gives a much lower degree of resolution, but it’s a degree of resolution that you can get to very quickly and you can iterate very rapidly in your design.

A number of new software approaches equip designers and engineers for the task, including Sustainable Minds, EcoTeam and SustainabilityXpress from SolidWorks. They all have pluses and minuses but all provide a basic tool to get started with more sustainable product development. And they draw from similar databases so the quality is pretty similar. What’s critical is for designers to select a tool, run with it, and start learning from it.

We’ve evolved a five-phase process for working with these tools (Sustainable Minds in our case) to begin to “Cut the Crap” (pardon my French), designing more sustainable products while saving our clients money at the same time. I want to be sure to make the point that this is not a new design process; we’re not advocating throwing out the way products are currently being designed. The point is that these are steps that can be grafted onto whatever a company’s current process might be.

These LCA steps are happening concurrently to the existing process, not disrupting it, which makes it even easier to get buy-in from the client team.

Here’s an overview of the process:

  1. Define and Declare. Simply put, what is the product and what service does it provide? For example, for a box fan, the service is how many hours of use you get.  So if box fan A gives you 100 hours and box fan B has twice the environmental impact but gives you 400 hours, box fan B may be more sustainable.
  2. Define the system. Think of a vacuum cleaner that has bags or maintenance items – lubricants, belts, etc. Determine which components will be part of the analysis.
  3. Benchmark.  Either use the existing product, or if you are designing a new product, a close competitor. Analyze or estimate the current environmental impact using Sustainable Minds or a similar tool. Now you begin the first round of LCA. Keep in mind that there is a whole range of environmental impacts. Carbon Dioxide is obviously a big one, but water eutrophication, fossil fuel depletion, human carcinogens or human toxicity should always be considered as well.
    Ideally, you would like to reduce them all, but what often happens is that concept A is lower in terms of global warming but higher in terms of smog, and concept B is vice versa. Luckily software packages like Sustainable Minds weigh the various parameters and reduce the total impact to a score.
    This is where you’ve got the biggest opportunities for improved sustainability and where we challenge assumptions and push our clients in directions that may be a bit different. 
  4. Iterative LCA and product design.  We can fine tune along every step of the design process.  Analysis of various options can be done in an hour or less and as you continue doing these runs as you make decisions on a daily basis, such as whether a part will be metal or plastic, or how many pieces are needed. Design alternatives and material choices can be informed all along the way by iterative steps of LCA.
  5. Optimization. Finally, we can squeeze out one more round of LCA for product optimization. Being able to eliminate 5 or 10 percent extra material in many of the plastic parts will have a meaningful impact when multiplied across hundreds of thousands of units.

Here’s a real life example that illustrates how the first ideas you come up with are not always the most sustainable choices. Consider the shipping reel. You’ve probably seen these large wooden reels on the backs of trucks, loaded up with heavy wire tubing. The empty reels often wind up as tables at day camps or grad student coffee tables or in landfills. The reason why they’re turned into tables is that it’s cost prohibitive to return them. A wire vendor can almost always buy a new reel for less than it costs to ship one back and reuse it.  So, their lifespan averaged two trips. Even if you want to re-use them, the wood flange degrades after about six cycles.

So the interesting proposition – that makes both business and environmental sense – was to design a reel that would be easier and more cost effective to return and reuse. The notion was to make the reels collapsible so they can be broken down and shipped back at a far lower cost.

Our preconception was that the new device would be entirely plastic and we set the mark at 36 shipments, versus the one or two currently being used.  But our initial Sustainable Minds analysis showed that an all-plastic reel with 36 uses would be essentially equivalent – environmentally – to the wooden reels already on the market! Certainly we don’t want equivalent, so back to the drawing board. Competitive research showed other breakdown reels on the marketplace, but the big red flag was that these reels hold only about 1,000 pounds of wire, where our reel needs to hold 3,000 pounds.

After analyzing the strength and environmental impact of all wood and all plastic, we developed a hybrid approach, with a plastic core that allowed us the flexibility to design the breakdown features, with wooden flanges to hold the wire. On a stiffness basis, wood is really a tremendous material quite well suited for this application.  Ultimately a single plastic, 2-part core with six sets of wood flanges (making 6 trips each) for a total of 36 uses is how we defined the system. With this hybrid system we were able to achieve a 37% improvement in environmental impact.

Finally, we wanted to look for additional, incremental improvements by optimizing the structure of the core’s plastic parts. We were able to cut out about 10 percent of the plastic, which ultimately brought us to a 45% improvement in the environmental impact of this new reel, from the starting point of the all-wood reel.

That extra 10% represents a huge cost savings for the client and reduces the number of pounds of plastic used by 10 percent. Multiply that by the number of reels that will be made and then you are talking about significant impacts.  We are now exploring a manufacturer take- back program using practically all recycled plastic.

Our hope is that, as a profession, product designers and engineers can start utilizing tools like Sustainable Minds more and more frequently.  Their leadership will absolutely impact our environment for the good, and their client’s bottom lines as well.

By focusing on the very tangible sustainability benefit of cost reduction, product designers can lead the charge with their corporate clients and everybody wins.


Great Story

Mathieu-- thanks for sharing your story.
Here is a link of this story Mathieu presented recently.

How to actually improve products

So this is how it's done.
Good background for anyone responsible for cutting waste and reducing carbon footprint at his or her company.

As Director of Design at Bresslergroup, Mathieu leads a team of accomplished multidisciplinary designers working across a variety of projects and industries. He is passionate about sustainable design and leads Bresslergroup’s Designers Accord and other sustainability initiatives. Mathieu is… [Read more about Mathieu Turpault]

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