Climate change. Cap and trade. Reduced carbon footprints. These are just a few of the new terms injected into the product-development lexicon from sustainable-development advocates. More than that, however, they’re a bellwether for the new realities of product design. No matter where you stand on the global climate change debate, sustainability-related pressures beyond your control—societal, political, or regulatory—will affect you and the products you design.
While renewable technologies like wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars grab most of the media attention, the real opportunity for sustainability in product development—with the greatest potential for reducing environmental impacts—rests with the design and manufacture of everyday products.
The next time you’re strolling through your favorite store and notice an appealing item—whether it’s a lawn chair or a sports car—consider for a moment the product’s total environmental impact. Imagine the mining of raw materials, the processing of those materials, and their transportation to the factory. How are those materials manufactured into parts? How much energy will the product consume throughout its useful life? How will the product’s eventual disposal affect the environment?
Now, take the collective impact of that one item and multiply it by the thousands, millions, or even billions of identical units available on the market. Then, multiply that number by every type of product that is manufactured and sold. The environmental impact almost defies comprehension. Next, imagine that design engineers could collectively reduce that impact by some percentage—say, 10 percent or more—across the board.
The thing is, you don’t have to imagine. Every product designer and engineer has the power to make a huge difference in the planet’s health—right now. Designing sustainable products doesn’t require a seismic change in the way designers and engineers do their jobs, just a different awareness when making decisions about considerations like a product’s necessary mass and the materials that go into it. Even small changes—such as making sheet metal a little bit thinner or employing a molding process that requires less energy—can make a huge difference in the aggregate.
A growing number of technology tools on the market today help designers make choices that reduce a design’s impact on air, energy, and water, and a product’s carbon footprint. The best products on the market will include functionality to:
- evaluate materials for environmental impact
- determine how the manufacturing location and shipping requirements for a product improve or degrade its environmental impact
- assess manufacturing processes to determine what alternatives use less energy and create fewer pollutants.
Using tools like these will help engineers and designers integrate sustainable design principles into their thinking, where it can have immediate impact on environmental factors without sacrificing a product’s practicality. The time has come for all of us to do what we can to make the world a healthier place to live, work, and pursue our dreams. It all starts with the product design in your mind.
Jeff Ray is the CEO of Dassault Systèmes SolidWorks Corp. Feedback regarding this commentary can be sent to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.