As more people around the globe generate more demand for more products, sustainable product design has never been more important. At a point when the global environment is being pushed to the brink, companies – particularly those operating on a global scale – have an imperative to think and run sustainably.
A response to this imperative is summed up in one mission statement: To help the world run better. In the digital supply chain, efforts towards this end is the design-to-operate (D2O) product lifecycle.
How does D2O help the world run better? It starts by integrating product lifecycle phases – design, plan, manufacture, deliver, and operate – through data visibility, flexible collaboration, and the ability to respond to opportunities and challenges with agility. Greater integration across the product lifecycle is particularly important for achieving sustainability goals – and one of the most important focal points in this regard is the design phase.
In the design phase, engineers set the stage for what is to come. Where sustainability is the goal, key design decisions need to be made in three key areas: materials, production methods, and product functionality.
Choosing sustainable product materials
Design engineers can have tremendous impact on sustainability with their initial decisions about the materials that go into the products they’re designing. Do you use recycled materials that have already been culled from the earth? Or do you take more from the earth? Where do the materials come from? Are they from a region known for honoring environmental regulations or for flouting them?
To understand these issues, engineers need to see deep into the supply chain. This requires close collaboration and data sharing with knowledgeable planners capable of ensuring sustainable and ethical sourcing. The details are important. Even the chemicals used to color products can have adverse environmental and health effects. Making the wrong decisions can harm the environment and also damage your company’s reputation.
Making sustainable manufacturing decisions
Design engineers need to consider issues of manufacturability, not just in terms of the cost to produce but also in terms of costs to the environment and the health and well-being of customers and non-customers.
To move toward sustainable production methods, engineering and manufacturing teams need to collaborate and share data. For engineers, the objective is a clear understanding of what’s required to make the product as designed. Altering design specifics can help to optimize the manufacturing process and substantially improve the environmental impact.
One of the most significant areas of impact, however, comes after manufacturing is complete. It is well known that the delivery phase contributes significantly to the carbon footprint of the product lifecycle – which is why sustainable companies seek to cut emissions from the delivery phase as much as possible.
One idea for reducing the carbon footprint in the delivery phase is to locate manufacturing closer to the customer – thus making emissions from transport less of an issue. This is where 3D printing can help. With 3D printing, plastic dust (ideally made from recycled materials) is used to model and produce products using relatively inexpensive “printers” that can be housed almost anywhere (rather than overseas where facilities for mass production are located).
3D printed products, moreover, can be 100% recyclable without any impact on quality. At SAPPHIRE NOW this year, the CIO of HP explained how HP is using 3D printing to print printers – which, while boggling the mind a bit, serves as a good example of a fully circular manufacturing process. Products made from recycled plastic dust can be returned to dust – which can again be reformed into new products.
Production at scale with 3D printing may be a way off, but progress is being made. For now, however, 3D printing already enables production with far less energy consumption than traditional manufacturing. And with the ability to produce products closer to the customer, delivery has less impact on the environment.
Designing for sustainable operations
Finally, design engineers need to think about the impact of their product design during the operational phase. This is hardly news. Engineers have long considered the carbon output of automobile design, for example, moving wherever possible to lighter, more aerodynamic cars (and planes) that use highly efficient hybrid or electric motors to burn fewer fossil fuels.
Beyond such efforts, however, engineers are increasingly seeking tighter integration with the operational phase to inform decisions at the point of design. Internet of Things (IoT) technology is helping to make this possible. By designing products with embedded sensors, engineers can collect feedback on how products are used and adjust designs to optimize running the machine according to the purpose customers have in mind.
IoT sensors can also be used to monitor specific parts and subsystems within a product or machine. This information can then be used to accurately predict part failure. Rather than replacing a part on a schedule (when the part may still have some life to it), maintenance teams can replace parts only when absolutely needed. In this way, design teams can help maximize the lifecycle of parts and minimize waste. And where parts do in fact need to be replaced, generating the new part with 3D printing techniques can further help to minimize the environmental impact.
If the goal is to help the world run better, then sustainable design, sustainable products, and sustainable operations are key parts of the equation. An integrated D2O product lifecycle can help by facilitating the sharing of information across traditional silos so teams can make smarter decisions that help protect the environment while driving business forward.
To find out more about the options available to your organization for improved sustainability, have a look at the new IDC report “Design as a Critical Element of Digital Supply Chain.”
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