By Eryn Devola — Vice President of Sustainability for Siemens Digital Industries
Design has always been a balance of performance, cost, and quality. But these metrics do not take the full, lifetime environmental impact of a product into account. Sustainability must be added to ensure every impact of a product is addressed in even the most complex systems. The only effective solution starts at the very beginning as nearly 80 percent of a product’s lifetime environmental impact is determined during the design phase – what materials are used, how it’s manufactured, energy efficiency, and what comes of it after its usefulness ends. The solution to these problems is to deploy sustainability as an additional business metric and use digitalization to get there faster than the competition.
Designing sustainable products requires an understanding of environmental impacts early, including insight into the product’s material and energy use, the manufacturing process’ environmental impacts, and its expected resource consumption. The designer must account for suppliers, distributors, and logistics providers while balancing sustainability, profitability, performance, and quality goals. Data and digitalization are key in a holistic approach to design, leveraging the Collective Intelligence of the Digital Enterprise. Achieving this requires reimagining product design to be built on a system of systems approach, connected industrial ecosystems, and holistic sustainability indicators.
Start with systems of systems design
A system can be as specific as a feature of the integrated circuit in an electronic device or as extensive as the environment that product will occupy. Most modern products cannot be described as a single system because of the many engineering disciplines required for development. Instead, these products are considered a system of systems. Coordinating diverse disciplines when working on a project requires simulation early and often to optimize individual systems and then balance how they interact.
This robust simulation is enabled by the comprehensive digital twin of the product, first and foremost. For a marine propellor, increasing the blade pitch may improve the hydrodynamic efficiency but it relies on the engine and every system in between to deliver enough power and remain within specification for carbon emissions in operation. These multi-disciplinary optimizations are faster than ever and require fewer resources to find the best solution.
There is also value in simulating production to gain insight into how the product is produced, logistics costs, usable lifetime, and how it fits into circular economies. Early exploration provides a more intelligently defined design space and binds it to what is viable, profitable, and sustainable for the business. Requirements and assessments must be seamlessly woven in from the beginning to make informed decisions. One material may be selected over another due to a superior strength-to-weight ratio for product performance. A material may be avoided due to the estimated CO2 emission cost of extraction over the recyclability of yet another material, and components might be designed for a specific manufacturing process like 3D printing to minimize waste.
Stay on track in a connected industrial ecosystem
Making the right sustainability decisions during the design phase requires access to the most accurate and broad collection of data to create a truly comprehensive digital twin, that includes the extended network of suppliers, logistics operations, and energy infrastructure. Such an approach delivers the collective intelligence needed to make better decisions and as your digital twin is informed with data collected from simulation, manufacturing, and the value chain, it becomes an increasingly accurate representation of the real world.
The communications ecosystem must cover the entire value chain and be established early – coordinating actions and data exchange with the suppliers, distributors, and other partners. This gives designers direct access to sourcing information on materials and contracted sub-systems. Simultaneously, a robust product lifecycle management system, built on digitalization, weaves all engineering work together to create today’s complex products, while still considering the available resources of the enterprise. Integrating these siloed processes helps bring a better and more sustainable product to market faster.
A well-connected industrial design ecosystem also provides feedback loops between design and the value chain. The mechanical designers may have requested and designed a product around one aluminum alloy in initial design iterations, but the supplier discovers a slightly different alloy with comparable properties but with better print viability within the existing infrastructure. Whether the business decision is to change the alloy or contract a different manufacturing supplier that can reliably print in the initial alloy, this new data point is added to the collective intelligence for future iterations.
Supplier decisions can have dramatic impacts on the sustainability of a product. One supplier might be able to employ renewable electricity because of their proximity to wind, solar, or other sustainable energy sources. Another might be closer, geographically, to the rest of manufacturing which limits the emissions due to transportation and logistics. These types of metrics are critical in making products more sustainable across the entire value chain.
Collaborations can extend further into the value chain to a product’s end-of-life, working towards circularity. Choosing a stronger material means it could be re-used. A stronger component may also be more difficult to manufacture, requiring more energy intensive processes. The volume and variability of these decisions is why digitalization and simulation are so important to sustainable design – simpler decisions can be automated, and complex ones are infused with greater intelligence.
Further optimize design with holistic sustainability indicators
Finally, it is important to revisit and evaluate the decisions at every stage of the product lifecycle. Holistic sustainability indicators must be integrated into the digital twin from the beginning for ongoing visibility of sustainability goals in concert with other requirements. This may require the design to include physical sensors that collect diagnostic and environmental conditions through manufacturing, delivery, and usage as well as carbon footprints and material costs. With a larger dataset it is even possible to include virtual sensors that rely on the models created in the digital twin.
Physical sensors feed the simulation models, providing a clearer understanding of decisions early in design while virtual sensors and models interpolate and extrapolate sustainability indicators from complex systems. These indicators enable closed-loop optimization between design, manufacturing, and usage.
Ready for your next, sustainable design
Sustainable design is about intentional decisions based on the collective intelligence of a product’s design, manufacturing, and operation across the entire value chain. It enables a product to be delivered with the fewest number of resources, be they material, energy, or otherwise. This requires a system of systems approach to create a comprehensive digital twin that accurately reflects all the diverse disciplines needed to create a complex product. It also needs to be built upon an industrial design ecosystem that facilitates the flow of crucial, real-time data across the enterprise and with external suppliers. And holistic sustainability indicators must be included to ensure decisions are well-informed to meet sustainability targets alongside other business goals. Sustainable products start with sustainable designs, created with intention.
Siemens Digital Industries Software
Filed Under: Green engineering • renewable energy • sustainability