Design has always been a balance between performance, cost and quality. But these measures do not take into account the environmental impact of a product during its lifetime. The durability of each product must be added to ensure that every effect is handled, even the most complex systems. The only effective solution starts from the very beginning. Over its lifetime, nearly 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined in the design phase—what materials are used, how it’s made, energy efficiency, and what’s left after the part’s added value has ended. The solution to these problems is to implement sustainability as an additional business standard and use digitization to achieve this standard quickly.
Designing sustainable products requires a strong understanding of environmental impacts, including the product’s material and energy consumption, the environmental impact of the manufacturing process and the expected resource consumption. The designer must consider suppliers, distributors and logistics providers while balancing sustainability, profitability, performance and quality objectives. Data and digitization are essential for a holistic approach to design that leverages the collective intelligence of the digital enterprise. To achieve this, companies will need to reinvent product design based on a system of systems, connected industrial ecosystems and holistic sustainability indicators.
Start with the system design systems
A system can be as specific as a function of the circuit board in an electronic device or as comprehensive as the environment in which that product will be used. Most modern products cannot be described as a single system due to the many engineering disciplines involved in their development. Instead, these products are considered a system of systems. When working on a project, coordinating different disciplines often requires simulation to optimize the individual systems and then consider how they interact with each other.
This robust simulation is initially made possible by the product’s extensive digital twin. For a marine propeller, increasing the blade pitch can improve hydrodynamic efficiency. However, it relies on the engine and any intermediate system during operation to provide sufficient power and stay within carbon emission specifications. These interdisciplinary optimizations are faster than ever and require fewer resources to find the best solution.
There is also value in simulating production to understand how the product is produced, logistics costs, shelf life and how it fits into circular economies. Early research provides a more intelligently defined design space, tying it to what is viable, profitable and sustainable for the business. Requirements and assessments must be seamlessly intertwined from the start to make informed decisions. One material may be chosen over another because of a superior strength-to-weight ratio for product performance. A material can be avoided due to the estimated CO2 emission costs of extraction rather than the recyclability of yet another material, and parts can be designed for a specific manufacturing process such as 3D printing to minimize waste.
Stay on track in a connected industrial ecosystem
In order to make the right sustainable decisions in the design phase, it is necessary to have access to the most accurate and far-reaching data set. This enables the creation of a comprehensive digital twin that includes the extensive network of suppliers, logistics operations and energy infrastructure. Such an approach provides the collective intelligence needed to make better decisions. As your digital twin is informed with data gathered from simulation, manufacturing and the value chain, it becomes an increasingly accurate representation of reality.
The communication ecosystem should cover the entire value chain and be established early – coordinating actions and sharing data with suppliers, distributors and other partners. This gives designers direct access to purchasing information on materials and contracted subsystems. At the same time, a Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) system, focused on digitalization, weaves all the engineering work together to create today’s complex products, while taking into account the company’s available resources. The integration of these silos contributes to faster marketing of a better and more sustainable product.
A well-connected industrial design ecosystem also creates feedback loops between the design and the value chain. The mechanical (design) engineers may have designed a product around an aluminum alloy in the first design iterations. Then the supplier discovers a slightly different alloy with similar properties but better printability within the existing infrastructure. Whether the business decision is to change the alloy or contract with another manufacturing supplier that can reliably print with the original alloy, this new data point adds the collective intelligence to future iterations.
Supplier decisions can have dramatic consequences for a product’s sustainability. One supplier may use renewable electricity because it is located near wind and solar power or other sustainable energy sources. Another supplier may be geographically closer to the rest of the production, limiting emissions from transport and logistics. These kinds of measurements are crucial to making products more sustainable throughout the value chain.
The collaboration can extend further in the value chain up to the end of a product’s life and work towards circularity. The choice of a stronger material means that it can be reused. A stronger component may also be more difficult to manufacture, requiring more energy-intensive processes. The scale and variability of these decisions is why digitization and simulation are so important to sustainable design. Simple decisions can be automated and complex decisions become more intelligent.
Optimize the design further with holistic sustainability indicators
Finally, it is important to review and evaluate the decisions made at each stage of a product’s life cycle. Holistic sustainability indicators should be integrated into the digital twin from the start to continuously visualize sustainability goals in conjunction with other requirements. A requirement for this is that the design includes physical sensors that collect diagnostic and environmental conditions during production, delivery and operation, as well as CO2 footprints and material costs. With a larger data set, it is even possible to include virtual sensors that rely on the models created in the digital twin.
Physical sensors provide the simulation models, providing clearer insight into early design decisions, while virtual sensors and models interpolate and extrapolate sustainability indicators from complex systems. These indicators enable closed-loop optimization between design, manufacture and use.
Ready for your next sustainable design
Sustainable design is about conscious decisions based on collective intelligence about the design, production and operation of a product throughout the value chain. It makes it possible to deliver a product with as few resources as possible, be it material, energy or other resources. This requires a system of systems approach to create a comprehensive digital twin that accurately reflects all the different disciplines required to create a complex product. It should also be based on an industrial design ecosystem that facilitates the flow of critical real-time data within the enterprise and with third-party providers. And holistic sustainability indicators should be included to ensure that decisions are well-founded to meet sustainability goals along with other business objectives. Sustainable products start with sustainable designs, made with an intention.
Eryn Devola, Vice President of Sustainability for Siemens Digital Industries