Engineering software helps products get greener.
Jean Thilmany, Senior Editor
For at least the past decade, the makers of design software have been touting the role their products play in sustainable design. New United States’ environmental regulations mean that conversation isn’t ending anytime soon. In fact, designers have found software can help them cut waste, aid sustainable design efforts, and boost budgets all at once, something they’d once thought impossible.
In August, Oregon passed the nation’s second extended producer responsibility law (EPR) law for packaging. Maine had voted in favor of an EPR law one month earlier. Under these laws, most product manufacturers must reduce packaging waste and become a member of a producer responsibility organization. In Oregon, PROs will need to submit an EPR plan to the state’s department of environmental quality by March 2024 and begin implementation of the plan the following July.
While environmental design—also called sustainable design—is driven by much more than rules and regulations, environmental design considerations will continue to grow, say the makers of computer-aided design and other types of engineering software. In response, they’ve added more sustainable design features to their systems.
But will the makers of products that range in size and complexity from refrigerators down to button batteries change their designs in light of new laws and increased public emphasis on environmental design? Possibly finds past research from the Resources for the Future, a Washington D.C. nonprofit with the mission to improve the environment, energy, and natural resource decisions. Cause and effect—law and design changes—are hard to link, the report found.
But even without legislation, manufacturers are heeding customers’ cries for greener goods.
“The extent to which EPR policies lead to design for the environment is an open question,” wrote Margaret Walls, then a researcher at Resources for the Future, in a 2006 report. The term “extended producer responsibility” was coined when the original German packaging take-back law was passed in the early 1990s, Walls wrote. “Although EPR means slightly different things to different people, a core characteristic of any EPR policy is that it places some responsibility for a product’s end-of-life environmental impacts on the original producer and seller of that product.
“The thinking behind this approach is that it will provide incentives for producers to make design changes to products that would reduce waste management costs. Those changes should include improving product recyclability and reusability, reducing material usage, downsizing products, and engaging in a host of other so-called design for environment activities,” she wrote.
Her report set out to find whether the early EPR laws had led to design changes. At the time, documentation was sparse on “real-world changes made in response to policies.”
Walls found that, in Germany, packaging volumes and materials use had declined after the EPR regulations went into effect. In Japan, Honda increased the proportion of materials within their vehicles that can be recycled in response to a law mandating auto shredder residue—the mixed material left over for disposal after vehicle parts have been recycled—meet specified recycling rate targets.
Manufacturing makes the mix
Today’s sustainable design practices go beyond the actual products themselves to encompass manufacturing methods. CAD helps here because manufacturing decisions begin with product design, researchers say.
The term environmentally conscious manufacturing process (ECMP) refers to the integration of environmental thinking into new product development, say researchers at institutions in France and Tunisia.
“ECMP has become an obligation to the environment and to the society itself, enforced primarily by governmental regulations and customer perspective on environmental issues,” writes Raoudha Gaha in a 2015 paper published in the International Journal of Advanced Manufacturing Technology. “This is especially true in the CAD phase, which is the last phase in the design process. At this stage more than 80% of (manufacturing) choices are made.”
Gaha is a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Technology of Compiègne in Compiègne, France. He teamed with researchers at the National Engineering School of Monastir in Tunisia and at Ecole Centrale in Paris on the study.
Engineers should take a product’s geometry and machining information into consideration as they work within CAD software, Gaha writes. The researchers propose an ECMP approach to eco-design that calls upon CAD technology.
Will it fly in Earth-friendly style?
Elsewhere, engineering technology providers have introduced solutions intended to aid with the design of products that are themselves specifically billed as environmentally friendly.
Take the example of the zero-emission, all-electric aircraft under development at Eviation Aircraft of Israel, which introduced a prototype of the plane, named Alice, in 2019. With a proposed cruising speed of 280 miles per hour, the nine-passenger airliner will be an affordable and sustainable option for air travel, says Omer Bar-Yohay, Eviation Air chief executive officer. Because electric engines offer higher propulsion efficiencies and lower maintenance costs, the plane’s flight costs are reduced by around 90% as compared to similar, traditionally made aircraft “which makes flying regional distances affordable,” Bar-Yohay says. Because the plane is electric, it’s quieter than a traditional plane.
Once commercialized, Alice will be capable of carrying two crew members and nine passengers on a single charge for 650 miles at 10,000 feet, he adds.
Engineers at Eviation Air where able to create the Alice prototype in two years with the help of “Reinvent the Sky” engineering software, which sits on the cloud-based 3DExperience platform from Dassault Systèmes, Bar-Yohay says. The platform integrates 3D design, composite design, and flow simulation.
More than 160 suppliers and partners located all over the world collaborated on the project.
“The propellers are made in the US, the plane’s molds in Indonesia, the landing gear in Italy, other components in France,” Bar-Yohay says. “The engineering technology allowed us to collaborate and go from concept to prototype very quickly.”
Sustainable by choice
Environmentally friendly needn’t be the size of an airplane.
The new era of innovation will come from sustainable solutions, proudly declares a director of innovation at a company that could be said to manufacture a rather fusty, noninnovative product.
While the door locks and access controls Assa Abloy makes are not quite as alluring as an electric aircraft, they’re of even greater necessity.
Recently, the manufacturer sought to introduce sustainable design practices for its products. In order for these systems to be included on green-building designs, the company needed to provide an Environmental Product Declaration to its customers. Builders need the EPD information to attain environmental certification, says Markus Bade, Assa Abloy’s director of innovation for central Europe.
For the first step toward gathering the information, the manufacturer conducted a baseline sustainable engineering study on an existing product. This was done to assess and compare the environmental impacts of existing and modified designs. For the study, the company’s engineering team in the Netherlands used the sustainability solution that can be included with SolidWorks 3D CAD software, Bade says.
Although SolidWorks Sustainability estimates the carbon footprint, energy consumption, and water and air impacts associated with a particular design, the construction industry requires additional environmental data for an EPD. Nevertheless, by providing these figures, the software gave engineers a trusted starting point for sustainable design, Bade says.
The Assa Abloy designers then used the environmental impact assessment tools within SolidWorks to design a new door-locking mechanism that cut the existing product’s environmental impact and also reduced manufacturing costs by 15%, Bade says. In fact, those two results were connected on one another, he adds.
The re-designed product proved the “traditional business view of sustainable design” wrong, he says. Sustainable design practices can improve processes and save money.
“We were pleasantly surprised to learn that by evaluating the environmental impact of a product, we can cut costs and protect the environment,” he says.
Analysis of the existing product found it to be overly strong, so engineers felt confident enough to go ahead with changes to material weight and thickness, Bade adds. The team cut the number of materials used and replaced custom nickel- and chrome-plated materials with stainless steel, and redesigned the latch tail.
Other changes included closing the lock case, riveting the cover, and screwing on the front plate.
“The material savings are quite dramatic,” Bade says. “When you cast nearly a million metal parts each year, every gram that you can cut from each part means less impact on the environment and lower cost.
Another developer, Sustainable Minds, makes software intended to give engineers pertinent supplier and material information, which allows them to weigh each design decision from an environmental standpoint.
Take Yakima. The customers who buy a ForkLift roof-rack bike mount made by the company are, for the most part, already environmentally conscious. The fork-style roof rack bike mount fits nearly every bicycle crossbar right out of the box without adjustment. To make the product even more environmentally appealing, Yakima used the Sustainable Minds software to find places environmental improvements could be made to its forklifts, says Chris Sautter, advanced development manager at the company.
The sustainability software highlighted the areas where engineers could make material substitutions that significantly improved sustainability and also improved cost and performance, Sautter says.
Reduce the wrappings
When it comes to retail products, sustainable packaging and manufacturing processes don’t necessarily need to be separate, designers have discovered.
The product development firm Bresslergroup Innovation, headquartered in Philadelphia literally designed a better mousetrap—and its packaging—with help from Susainable Minds software. When Woodstream learned its Victor Mousetrap may have a place in the aisle at Walmart, the supplier knew a high score on the retailer’s environmental scorecard would further the mousetrap’s chance of acceptance.
To boost the rating, Woodstream called in Bresslergroup Innovation, which kicked off redesign using the Sustainable Minds evaluation process, says Mathieu Turpault, director of design and managing partner at Bresslergroup.
“The software enabled us to create a benchmark, a starting point that we could iterate around and improve upon. We could quickly test assumptions, evaluate how shipping environmental impact compared to material environmental impact, and figure out where our design time and effort should be spent,” Turpault says.
After improving on the product’s design, Bresslergroup turned its attention to packaging. Designers were able to eliminate the plastic blister pack and minimize the amount of cardboard the mousetrap had been packaged in.
The designers discovered early that the environmental impact of shipping the mousetrap to retail locations was fairly minimal. Material selection was a more important element for sustainable packaging.
“It became clear that removing material from the packaging design would yield significant environmental gains,” Turpault says. “Sustainable Minds helped guide our design process throughout.”
Maybe the mousetrap maker is leading the way, showing manufacturers in Oregon and Maine that they can reduce packaging waste to meet the new environmental legislation in those states. It may also demonstrate that sustainable design practices don’t need to increase costs while raising the changes the product could appear on retailers’ shelves or as a construction material within certified green buildings.
And the practices will give the environment a break as well.