Building sustainability into product design

product design

Creating a sustainable product involves every part of the item’s design, material sourcing, manufacture, distribution, sale and end-of-life. The process requires materials and resources, transport, energy and heat that all have a major environmental impact – and it all costs money. Design is key to sustainability, regulatory compliance and cost savings.

Up to four-fifths of a product’s lifetime emissions are determined by decisions made at the design stage and with sustainability now at the heart of the entire product lifecycle ensuring that products are fully aligned at the design stage is critical.

Up to 80 per cent of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the product design phase. Companies that design for sustainability are able to increase resource-efficiency and save material by reducing costly prototyping with digital twins; support circularity and preserve valuable resources by planning for reuse, recycling and remanufacturing; drive decarbonisation and save energy and CO₂ emissions by designing for optimised energy use in product manufacturing, use phase and maintenance and tap into innovation with new materials, carbon-free technologies and new production methods.

There are examples of eco-design in all kinds of consumer goods, such as biodegradable furniture, recycled tableware, edible coffee cups and bamboo sunglasses or toothbrushes, as well as clothes and shoes made with plastic recovered from the ocean and ecological gold jewellery.

Design is key to sustainability

“Every single client is now asking for products that can be recycled and have the best sustainable credentials,” says James Melia, CEO of industrial design agency Blond. “There has been a monumental shift over the past seven years to the point now where it’s almost every inquiry and if potential clients don’t mention sustainability then it’s a big red flag for us. We have seen the major change in consumer behaviour by what brands are wanting from us as a design agency. Every product must now have sustainability built in at the design stage.

“There is a great need for sustainable design in cosmetic products because they create a lot of waste. Every major brand is addressing the problem, which is encouraging.  But consumer electronics is a much more difficult area that presents a range of practical and regulatory challenges.”

The need to break down electrical products and parts that can be recycled, for example, is difficult when the product has to be sealed for safety reasons, Melia continues. “The many challenges involved means the tech and electronics industry has been slower to embrace sustainability and for most major brands the core drivers in product design are cost and saleability.”

Where practical and commercial elements hinder or prevent core sustainability in design, it is possible to seek carbon reduction solutions at other key points in the product lifecycle. “If a product can’t be designed and made to be broken down and recycled then you have to look at the product supply chain and its carbon footprint in order to deliver the sustainability required. We always advocate for sustainability so products avoid aesthetic obsolescence and remain usable and relevant. We design products to last and be re-used as many times as possible.”

Design for manufacturing

Designers must be aligned with procurement, sourcing and supply chain elements as well as the practicalities of manufacturing, Melia says.

“It’s important to have strategic approach to design where you’re thinking about the full lifecycle of a product and the business plan, from a sustainable point of view, at the beginning and throughout the project, and embed it into the design process, as opposed to it being an afterthought.”

Sustainable design involves the complete product lifecycle with wider eco-elements and commercial considerations built into the process at an early stage. “You have to identify the most sustainable and cost-effective source of materials, the best places in the world to manufacture the product along with the best ways of shipping and the all the various costs involved. Such 360-degree design can ultimately determine the viability and profitability of a product. 

“We have to have a firm understanding of manufacturing processes, where to source the right manufacturers and what’s the most sustainable option in terms of global locations, and balance that with costs and margins. We’re deeply involved in every part of product creation not just design but all the way to actual manufacture of items.”

Technology powering design

Technology is allowing designers to create sustainable products that are more efficient and use fewer resources. Additionally, technology is helping to create products that are easier to recycle or compost. 3D printing, biomaterials, and sustainable product design are just a few of the latest technological advancements being used to create more sustainable products.

3D printing reduces the need for traditional manufacturing processes and can be used to create products with less waste and fewer resources. AI-powered generative design is revolutionising the way products are made, drawing on cloud computing and artificial intelligence to create designs unlike anything engineers might come up with on their own. Generative design is transforming the world of design and is at the heart of how we can deliver on some of the broader challenges around sustainability and the circular economy.

“In the design process we work back and forth between 3D virtual and 3D physical,” Melia explains. “We can 3d print in house and go straight from our CAD programme to a physical item. CAD tools can streamline the process and allow us to stress test items in 3D VR and understand manufacturing constraints to ensure that things are actually going to work.” Dedicated sustainable design can also help reduce production costs and environmental impact by the use of alternative materials and processes.

Knowing and understanding the environmental impact of sourced materials, products and services in the supply chain is now a key pillar of sustainable product design. “Use of latest technology helps us to understand the complete lifecycle of a product and calculate its carbon emissions.”

Product lifecycle design also involves ALM tools that automate software development and deployment processes to ensure compliance is achieved and maintained throughout the entire process, and are used create a standardised environment where all teams involved in the product lifecycle can communicate and collaborate.

Sustainable design also includes a bill of materials (BOM), a comprehensive inventory of all the raw materials, assemblies, subassemblies, parts and components, as well as the quantities of each needed to manufacture a product. Every line of the bill of materials includes the product code, part name, part number, part revision, description, quantity, unit of measure, size, length, weight and specifications or features of the product.

Consumer power beats regulation

As more companies transition to utilising greener and more sustainable materials governments are looking towards developing new legislation to ensure that products are designed with sustainability in mind. Industry experts have expressed mixed opinions on the potential regulations, citing the need to balance industry and commercial needs with environmental concerns.

“Regulation is helpful but from what we’re seeing consumer mindset is a lot more powerful,” Melia believes. “Consumer behaviour is forcing manufacturers and brands to change their products and their activities to be more sustainable.

“If major brands want to exist in future they will have to listen and respond to their customers. Change resulting from regulation is slow, because companies take a ‘wait and see’ approach or get lawyers involved to find legal loopholes, whereas consumers have the ultimate power to force change by saying ‘if you’re not sustainable then we’re just not going to buy from you’.”

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