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Adapting to a modern design challenge

02 April 2012

For many designers and organisations, thinking about the environmental impacts of a product is a new topic and, for some, getting to grips with the terminology, standards and tools associated with ‘eco design’ can seem like a daunting challenge. Jamie O’Hare and Leigh Holloway offer some guidance.

There are many different terms used to refer to eco design. These include ‘environmentally conscious design’, ‘design for environment’, ‘environmentally sustainable design’ and so on. The definitions may vary but the goal is the same: to reduce the environmental impacts of a product across its whole lifecycle. There are two fundamental activities of eco design: identifying which phase of the product lifecycle contributes most to the overall impact; and the generation of alternative design concepts by applying relevant eco design strategies.

Why is eco design important?
Within the context of constrained global economic growth and challenging market conditions investing in building skills and competencies in eco design may appear difficult to justify. Whilst many designers would like to reduce the environmental impacts of their products they struggle to find the time to do so, unless they have received an explicit mandate. However, the business drivers for investing in eco design are strengthening.

Primary amongst these is the potential to reduce costs. Companies often find that lowering environmental impact also lowers costs through the reduction of materials, energy and waste. When a product includes elements manufactured by suppliers, eco design provides an opportunity to engage with these suppliers in pursuit of a leaner, more cost-effective supply chain.

A second driver is legislation. As well as government laws and regulations, industry associations and NGOs are introducing standards, policies, and substance watch lists in an effort to influence the regulatory framework and help companies keep track of a complex, global picture. Legislation, regulations, and standards now cover the entire lifecycle of a product.

Furthermore, companies want to be able to market claims about the environmental performance of their products to gain a branding or competitive edge, or because practices such as carbon labelling are becoming standard. Such claims may help to increase sales and brand value as long as they: address issues of concern to customers, analysts or non-governmental organisations (NGOs); are based on scientific evidence; and can be independently verified.

Conversely, failing to meet these criteria introduces new risks of damage to the company’s reputation. Companies can report against any number of respected eco labels - for example, the Carbon Trust’s product carbon footprint label (measured according to the PAS 2050 standard), EPEAT for IT equipment, or the EU Blue Angel mark.

Barriers to eco design
Having made the case for investing in eco design, the responsibility for implementing this strategy ultimately comes down to the design team and the individual designer. The designer defines the overall concept, selects the materials and processes, specifies components and dictates to a large extent how the user will interact with the product. These choices determine the environmental impacts of the resulting product. When considering eco design for the first time, the designer is often faced with many barriers, real or perceived, to achieving a successful outcome.

The first barrier is a lack of understanding and knowledge of eco design and the activities involved. This is understandable given that many designers will not have received any formal training on this topic. However, there are now a number of high quality sources of information on eco design such as specialist consultants, webinars and other online resources that can support designers.

Another barrier is the lack of simple tools to support product environmental assessment and eco design. Many tools for environmental assessment originate from the academic field of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).

These tools enable a very detailed study of the environmental impacts of a product but because of the type of information they require, they are only applicable at the end of the design process – when it is too late and too costly to use the results to inform the design of the product. Also, conventional LCA tools were generally developed for use by environmental science experts.

These two factors mean that most environmental assessment tools are not suitable for use by designers during the early stages of design.

Why focus on the early stages of design?
One of the key principles of eco design is that ‘prevention is better than cure’. It aims to eliminate waste and sources of inefficiency before they occur by addressing these issues whilst the design is still on the drawing board. In doing so, the scope for improvement is much greater, as it is widely claimed that 80% of a product’s overall environmental impact has been ‘built in’ by the end of the conceptual design phase.

At this point, the designer has typically selected materials and manufacturing processes, and defined the product lifecycle; these constrain the final economic and the environmental costs. By evaluating environmental performance during this early stage, the relative environmental costs of different options can be considered, in much the same way as economic costs or material suitability would be evaluated. This enables changes to the design before significant project costs have been incurred, and avoids costly and time-consuming redesign.

How can tools help?
Recognising the need to focus on the early stages of design and that conventional LCA tools do not support this, Granta has developed ‘Eco Audit’ technology. Eco Audit provides a quick and interactive means to determine the factors that make the greatest contribution to a product's environmental impact, and to make materials and process choices that minimise this impact. This rapid assessment helps engineers and designers to focus their efforts on the most significant life cycle phases, and consider ‘what-if' scenarios during the early stages of design.

The Eco Audit calculations take key information about the product—such as the materials and processes used, its transport, and use. This helps the user to consider the entire life cycle as well as to clearly see the impacts of material and process decisions. The output is a report showing graphs and tabular data of energy usage, CO2e footprint, and other key indicators. The focus is on ease-of-use and speed. Accuracy is sufficient to drive key design decisions; for example, substituting materials to reduce weight, or to cut embodied energy.

Of course, such eco assessment requires the right data. Granta’s MaterialUniverse dataset provides generic property data on around 3,000 engineering materials and 240 processes - complete and normalised allowing comparison and selection for metals, ceramics, polymers, composites, and natural materials. Each material record provides engineering properties, eco properties (energies, emissions, end-of-life), plus cost data.

Eco Materials Adviser provides Granta’s Eco Audit technology as an easy-to-use, interactive tool within the Autodesk Inventor CAD system. The tool connects, via the Internet, to a Cloud-hosted database containing Granta’s MaterialUniverse data. The user can search and browse this database of materials and processes, apply materials to parts within their CAD model, and instantly generate an eco impact dashboard. The effect of changes to the model or materials assignments can be explored interactively.

Whilst there are still many challenges for designers that want to begin applying eco design principles in their work, tools such as Eco Audit are helping to overcome those challenges by providing simple, designer-orientated tools that enable the user to quickly identify environmental hot spots and guide materials and process selection decisions to reduce those impacts.

Eco Audit sheds light for Zodion
Eco3 Design has undertaken a number of product carbon footprints using the CES Eco Audit tool. These range from electronics and packaging to playground equipment and lighting equipment. A particular case study that highlights the advantages of undertaking such assessments is one carried out with Zodion, a Yorkshire based company specialising in the design, assembly and supply of low voltage luminaires and electronic lighting control equipment.

Using Eco Audit, the life-cycle carbon footprint of one of Zodion’s lighting control products was measured with a view to making design changes that would reduce this impact. Calculating the life-cycle impacts of the product identified a number of environmental ‘hot spots’.

Informed by this analysis, a number of design changes were proposed, such as: inclusion of recycled materials; reduction of materials used in some components; and the use of alternative electronics. Further analysis suggested that these changes would lead to CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) savings of over 9kg per unit over its entire life. Over one year’s production (125,000 products) of these units the saving is well over 1,000 tonnes of CO2e.

The reduction in energy consumption of the products to which this lighting control unit is attached was been calculated at 2,053MWh over the 125,000 units and their 15 year life cycle. This would equate to overall cost savings for the user of the product of over £200,000.

What Zodion and an increasing number of companies are finding is that by integrating environmental considerations into the early stages of design, eco design can deliver significant cost savings along with other business benefits.

Dr Jamie O’Hare is Eco Design product manager, Granta Design; Dr Leigh Holloway is director, Eco3 Design

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