New Software Could Help Engineers Create Greener Products

For companies like Walmart, going green means making products that use fewer resources. Software companies are helping them get there.

The greenest product is the one that’s never produced, never sold, never thrown away. But for companies that design and produce the reams of stuff that stock the shelves at Walmart, Best Buy, and your local eco-friendly boutique, closing up shop isn’t an option. Going green rally means going greener by designing products that use fewer resources or less carbon-intensive materials.

To create a greener product, though, a company first has to figure out how green its product is to begin with. Until recently, the best way to obtain that information has been to commission a life-cycle assessment, a procedure that can take months and costs tens of thousands of dollars. But now, software companies that support product designers are offering tools to create quick-and-dirty life-cycle assessment for products, even while they’re in the design and innovation phase. If engineers make a change to a product’s design, they don’t have to make an effort to understand its environmental impact. They can just glance over to a corner of the screen. These estimates aren’t perfect, but they have the potential to help companies shrink the carbon footprint of their products.

“We have an opportunity to democratize this idea of life-cycle thinking,” says Asheen Phansey, the sustainability product manager at SolidWorks, which launched its sustainability software in 2010. “There are literally millions of physical objects in the world that have been designed in SolidWorks and eventually manufactured.”

SolidWorks’ competitors include PTC and AutoCAD, both of which released life-cycle products earlier this year. The tools offer information about environmental factors like greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and energy use. They tend to describe the impact of a design choice in terms of percent change, a data point that answers the question “Is this product greener?” rather than “Is this product green?” SolidWorks’ software can show designers how the design of the product changes its footprint; in its first edition, AutoCAD’s could only compare the impact of changing a material with a particular product design.

Even understanding those changes can make a big difference, though. “It’s really a supply chain issue,” says Scott McCarley, who works on PTC’s Windchill life-cycle assessment. PTC’s customers, which include big electronics manufacturers like Motorola, tend to see as much as 80 percent of their environmental impact in their supply chain. “Understanding the habits and the material choices of the supply chain is key to reducing the environmental impact,” he says.

This mainstreaming of sustainability tools could herald a change in the way product engineers and their employers think about their work. Engineers have been slow to catch on to the green revolution, which hasn’t always depended on data to justify its most ambitious goals. (Engineers are “kind of a skeptical bunch,” Phansey says.) Engineers have also been told to prioritize making products faster and cheaper, not smarter or safer. But as their customers—particularly those behemoths like Walmart—start asking for greener products to sell, engineers need to find a way to meet those demands. And Phansey, who’s also a professor at Babson College, finds that his students are dedicated to the idea of designing greener products.

“The education market is really pushing for more sustainability solutions much harder than the commercial market,” he says. “We have over a million license holders of our educational software. The people using this software are the engineers who will be designing all the products that we use tomorrow.”

Photo via (cc) Flickr user bulliver

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