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Sustainable product design can have a transformative effect on forward-looking organisations, resulting in higher levels of innovation, efficiency profitability and team morale. But successfully implementing more sustainable design strategies requires fostering a culture of creative thinking that encourages engineers to challenge conventional wisdom. This whitepaper looks at the macro-trends behind the drive for sustainability and explains how companies can empower engineers to think differently. It also provides a checklist of pointers worth considering when assessing new products' environmental, social and economic impact - from the initial phase through to the end of life.

Sustainable future

Introduction: the importance of sustainable design

Electronic design engineers are used to grappling with a long list of critical considerations as they embark on the new product development process - technical performance, cost, ergonomics, and aesthetics, to name but a few.

Increasingly, though, environmental concerns and the realisation that resources are finite and should be managed conservatively and wisely means that sustainability is becoming an ever-important part of the mix. But how can product engineers refine their designs to minimise the use of materials, energy and labour? And how can products be made to fit harmoniously into the environment and with minimum disruption or degradation of natural ecosystems? These are all vital questions that have often been peripheral in a linear economy of 'take, make and dispose'.

The importance of the design engineer's role in enhancing sustainability cannot be overstated. Research suggests that over 80% of all product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase of a product. Reengineering a product's sustainability is hard – it must be baked in from the start.

Many companies have worked with organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to rethink products and processes and reduce their overall resource consumption. New concepts such as the circular economy provide a more sustainable production and consumption model where raw materials are designed to be kept longer in production cycles and repeatedly used through remanufacturing and reusability, therefore generating much less waste. Indeed, the circular economy provides a reminder that product design is a non-linear process – there are always new strategies and approaches that can be adapted to deliver better results.

This whitepaper looks at the economic and societal factors behind the drive for more sustainable design. And it provides engineering organisations with some best-practice advice on how to engender a culture of sustainable thinking while suggesting ten areas where environmental advancements can be made.

Sustainable design: Why us? Why now?

So, what motivates engineering organisations to adopt more sustainable design? At a headline level, mega-factors such as the climate crisis and resource depletion provide compelling reasons to reduce the environmental impact of all industrial and consumer products – and by doing so, meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to live happily and healthily.

But more prosaic reasons also come into play, with sustainable design delivering business benefits in several tangible ways. Firstly, it can challenge conventional thinking, resulting in new approaches that can increase efficiencies and reduce costs. It can also provide an impetus for innovation, potentially opening new markets, business models and revenue streams. And research has shown that more sustainable organisations have greater staff satisfaction and better retention levels, with many younger engineers wanting to work for companies that can prove their environmental credentials. Related to this, sustainable operations can positively affect brand reputation, particularly in markets such as consumer electronic goods.

Indeed, according to the latest research by Deloitte, consumers are increasingly making conscious decisions with sustainability and the environment in mind. For example, more than half of consumers now view durability as an essential factor when making a purchase, while 38 per cent would be prepared to pay more for a longer-lasting product. In short, sustainability is about long-term business viability - the world is changing, and companies must respond if they want to survive.

How to kickstart a culture of sustainable design

The first step on the journey to more sustainable design is to engender a pervasive culture of creative thinking inside an organisation. This can be easier said than done when strategies and approaches to product development have become ingrained over time and become hard to change. However, embracing sustainability involves unlocking the space for critical reflection on ‘business as usual’, and this requires giving engineers the time, space, skills and encouragement they need.

“Any good creative process has some level of chaos within it – it is rarely a linear journey,” says Emma Crichton, Head of Engineering at Engineers Without Borders UK, a charity which aims to put global responsibility at the heart of engineering. “Product development is complex and fast-paced, but often companies need to take a step back and give their people the time to self-educate, develop new competencies and question the norm. It is unlikely that traditional practices and processes will work effectively in creating more sustainable and equitable outcomes. People need time and space to come together and think creatively.”

For Engineers Without Borders UK, sustainable outcomes are more likely to be delivered through more diverse teams. “Having the right blend of skills and backgrounds is critically important,” says Emma Crichton. “Teams work better when they have a mix of technical, interpersonal and broader skills than typically valued in practice. Product design and development teams need to include advocates, facilitators and systems thinkers and to have people with a good understanding of social equity and ecological sustainability. If you have all those kinds of people on a team, imagine what that group could start to create.”

Understanding the relevant standards

But abstract concepts such as product circularity are still relatively new. Many organisations, especially small to medium sized-enterprises, might have sustainable ambitions, but they often lack the knowledge of how to put practical strategies into place. According to Professor Martin Charter, director of the Centre for Sustainable Design at the University for the Creative Arts, the first step is understanding existing sustainability standards and regulations, which requires allocating responsibility. 

“Sustainability is an important issue, and it needs an investment of time,” he says. “To take it seriously, there needs to be someone inside the organisation responsible for taking a top-line view of the regulatory landscape, monitoring and understanding all existing and emerging standards related to eco-design.

“For example, IEC 62430:2019 provides broad-based principles, requirements and guidance standards for organisations intending to embrace environmentally conscious design. Then there are the environmental management standards such as ISO14000 family. So, firstly, allocate an individual with responsibility for reading and understanding the standards before looking at broader issues such as training and the sorts of checklists and tools that will be required to take things further.”

Assessing and developing new skills

Professor Martin Charter has spent more than 30 years working with companies keen to advance sustainable design. He says levels of awareness and understanding of sustainability inside each organisation vary dramatically. “You get many people with zero knowledge and understanding, progressing through to basic, intermediate and advanced. Companies must take stock and assess where the expertise resides. Sometimes it exists without them realising. Only then can an organisation identify the skills requirement and start to think about putting new structures in place.” 

Skills assessment inevitably reveals a requirement for additional learning – often at a very practical level. For example, many organisations find they lack experience in areas such as design for repair. One effective means of addressing this shortcoming, suggests Martin Charter, is to give product engineers the time to attend a Repair Café – a worldwide network of 2,500 community-centred workshops where experts and volunteers work to fix broken items such as electrical goods. 

“Repair Cafes represent a fun and friendly way for companies and individuals to improve their knowledge in a critical area of sustainability. The biggest single volume of products at these Repair Cafes is small electrical items, and the repair rate for such devices is around 50 per cent. Repair Cafes are a great starting point for thinking about and working through the practicalities of longer-lasting designs.”

Supply chain implications

Another crucial consideration for companies embarking on a more sustainable design journey is gaining a thorough understanding of the supply chain implications. No new product development takes place in isolation. It often involves materials and sub-assemblies, contract manufacturing, packaging and transport services – all of which can be provided by a network of suppliers. These days, many environmentally conscious companies are challenging their suppliers to become more sustainable, but it is a process that requires clear lines of communication and expectation setting.

Indeed, sustainability can only be delivered through partnership and collaboration, and that requires support and cooperation. A good starting point here is to build a detailed view of the supply chain, mapping the various organisations within it, and identifying the impacts, risks and drivers of waste. The Centre for Sustainable Design recommends pulling together a workshop of all relevant stakeholders, working jointly through any issues and stating the benefits of a new approach. This supplier engagement process might also cover incentivisation and the initiation of a monitoring programme to ensure that any targets and goals are being met.

“Suppliers are an intrinsic part of the sustainability process,” says Martin Charter. “Take modularity and design for disassembly, reuse, repair and re-manufacture. For the makers of electronic devices in B2b and B2C markets, advances here can only be achieved by working closely with component and sub-assembly suppliers. That is why it is crucial to open strong lines of communication from the outset.”

Learn from other people’s experience

Fortunately, some global organisations have successfully navigated the complexities of establishing more sustainable designs. Several best-practices models have, therefore, already been published, and these approaches can act as a helpful framework for other companies embarking on a similar journey of discovery.

Dutch multinational Philips, for example, talks at length about how it has embedded sustainability in its innovation process to reduce the environmental impact of its products and processes. It applies detailed lifecycle analysis at every stage of a product’s life – from materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and manufacturing, and disposal or recycling. This analysis has driven process improvements across the board. It has helped reduce energy consumption and increase the overall energy efficiency of many Philips products; minimised the use of hazardous substances; reduced the weight and volume of packaging; and led to higher levels of circularity through recovery and reuse of materials. 

Of course, all companies are different – and no approach to sustainability will ever be the same. Each product will be case-dependent and require a diligent impact assessment process. But companies like Philips have many years of experience, and valuable lessons can be learned from what has become a tried-and-trusted approach.

Ten pointers for sustainable design

So, having established that sustainable product design is never a linear process, it is worth looking at some of the tangible factors that must be considered along the way. This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course. Still, it does highlight the inter-linked nature of the process, and it provides a checklist of pointers worth consideration when looking to minimize the use of materials, energy and labour:

  1. Materials / traceability: Where have materials come from? Are they ethically extracted and made? Can the embodied energy associated with the extraction, processing, production, and delivery of a material be calculated?
  2. Manufacturing efficiency / energy mix: Have your manufacturing processes been optimized to minimise environmental impacts? Has the energy mix been decarbonised to any extent? Have continuous improvement techniques been implemented? Can advances such as IoT be deployed for greater efficiency?
  3. Water usage: Do you have an annually-reviewed water management strategy in place? Can a water simulation model be performed to establish a ‘what-if’ scenario for water reduction? Can wastewater be recycled and reused?
  4. Modularity: Is it possible to design for modularity to encourage component replacement and upgrade? Do you understand the environmental impact of each modular product's lifecycle stage, including the user's role, in deciding whether modularity is a suitable sustainable strategy?
  5. Repairability / Obsolescence: Can components be easily reached and repaired with readily available replacements that are not likely to become unavailable soon? What impact will repairability have on business models and revenues?
  6. Packaging: Has packaging design been optimized and plastic been replaced with bio-gradable materials, where possible, to reduce its environmental footprint? Are you keeping ahead of the curve regarding packaging materials development that could potentially deliver any quick wins?
  7. Distribution: Are your products being shipped to market in an environmentally responsible manner, with minimal usage of fossil fuels? Have transport and logistics companies committed to a process of electrification?
  8. Disassembly: Can your products be quickly taken apart at the end of life, encouraging the reuse of relevant components rather than sending them to landfill?
  9. End-of-life reuse: Have you adopted any take-back programmes, encouraging recovery and recycling as part of the circular economy? Can you effectively measure the success of extended producer responsibility programmes?
  10. Engineering impact assessment: Have you performed any real-world product performance evaluation, feeding back data into a design loop? Can this data be used to increase the durability and performance of existing or future products?

The future of sustainable engineering

Looking to the future, sustainability is going to become an ever-increasing factor in product design. Successful companies embrace change, and many organisations are already considering their future skills requirements. While technical knowhow will remain at the heart of the green economy, there will be greater emphasis on other complementary skills such as ethics, communication and critical reasoning. These requirements will undoubtedly challenge the educators of tomorrow.

“We are aiming to reach a tipping point where sustainability will become part of an engineer’s daily life,” says Emma Crichton, Head of Engineering at Engineers Without Borders UK. “Efforts are therefore needed to upskill the workforce and enable people to grapple with producing things more sustainably. There is a concern that, as an industry, we are walking into a Net Zero skills gap, and we need to work collaboratively now to address those potential shortfalls.”

As part of its remit to put global responsibility at the heart of engineering, Engineers Without Borders UK plans to help upskill 250,000 people by 2030. It has identified four over-arching principles:

Responsible. To meet the needs of all people within the limits of our planet. This should be at the heart of engineering.

Purposeful. To consider all the impacts of engineering, from a project or product’s inception to the end of its life. This should be at a global and local scale, for people and planet.

Inclusive. To ensure that diverse viewpoints and knowledge are included and respected in the engineering process.

Regenerative. To actively restore and regenerate ecological systems, rather than just reducing impact.

By mapping these four principles against knowledge, skillsets, behaviours or mindsets, Engineers Without Borders UK plans to create new competencies and pathways that can be used to help individuals to thrive in a more sustainable economy. 

“It’s about supporting more informed choices,” she adds. “We have always thought about technology or engineering with a mindset of ‘can we develop this product or system’? But now the bigger question is, should we? And if so, how? The new pathways and competencies will help bring that decision-making process to life.”

There is also a vital conversation to be had around the role of academia in a more sustainable world. For instance, does the current curriculum reflect the urgency of the climate crisis and the rapid pace of resource depletion and chronic ecological damage? And if not, what needs to be done to bring it up-to-date?

“I think we will have to go back and look at what is being taught in the engineering departments and the design schools to see if they cater effectively for sustainable development,” says Professor Martin Charter, director at the Centre for Sustainable Design. “It is going to require leadership from the government, the academic organisations and the engineering institutions. I feel that academia sometimes lags behind what is happening in the real world. We need stakeholders to come together and establish a new vision for eco-design over the medium-term.”

Conclusion – make a change today

In conclusion, there is an unstoppable impetus behind the demand for more sustainable product design. But successful implementation of sustainable principles cannot happen overnight. It requires a top-down commitment from inside an organisation and the requisite investment in people and processes. It also needs a strong understanding of relevant regulations and standards and collaboration with suppliers and other stakeholders throughout the value chain.

But the benefits of sustainable design can be transformative for a forward-looking organisation and result in higher levels of innovation, creativity and team morale. Sustainable product design can also make an organisation more attractive to the future workforce. Graduates and younger engineers have lived most of their lives against the backdrop of the climate crisis, and many have a personal stake in the circular economy and the broader issue of Net Zero. Sustainability is becoming a valuable recruitment tool for the brightest talent amid global skill shortages.

Customers in B2B and B2C markets are becoming more selective, too, and want to deal with organisations keen to be green. Therefore, sustainable product design can play an essential role in establishing environmental credentials and protecting brand reputation, which can be critical in today’s online digital world.

In short, sustainable design can be good for businesses and the environment. And it is engineers who will play a critical role in putting these principles into practice. 

Roundtable on sustainability

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