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issue: December 2009 APPLIANCE Magazine

APPLIANCE Engineer - The Open Door
Taking Up the Sustainability Challenge


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Tim McAloone, Technical University of Denmark

 It’s no surprise to anyone that environmental issues are becoming ever more prominent and important to understand in the world of appliance development and manufacture.

But what have we learned over the past decades, and how much do companies actually understand about designing for environment? And how much can we, or should we, design?

What is surprising is that around 90% of the waste associated with the average mechanical or mechatronic product has occurred before end-users even get their hands on it. And if the product bears a plug or a battery, it will probably continue to make its most significant mark on the environment in its use phase—a phase where the manufacturer often has little or no direct influence.

Environmental impacts are, of course, caused in all stages of a product’s life, and different products give rise to different types of environmental profiles. But regardless of the nature, size, and time of occurrence of environmental impacts for a product, the vast majority of these have been decided in the early phases of product development. This means the product developer has a great influence on the product’s life cycle and also on the subsequently occurring environmental impacts. It is here where materials, technologies, and the product’s lifetime are fixed. Therefore, it is important that the product developer considers the environment carefully and systematically into the development project, by adopting a life cycle approach to product development. It is essential that environmental stewardship becomes an integral part of the product development process, on a par with other business considerations such as cost, quality, design for manufacture, and so on.

Ecodesign is Nothing New

Design for environment—or ecodesign, as it’s also known—is no longer a new discipline in the field of engineering. The past two decades have seen many efforts from academia and industry alike, toward the consideration of environmental improvement during product development. The result is that there are now hundreds of guidelines, tools, calculators, and consultants available to aid the process of design optimization for environmental improvement. The tough issue, however, is how to integrate these resources into each and every product development process. The answer, of course, is motivation.

What will motivate a company to begin applying environmental improvements into its business practices and, therefore, also the products? Beyond the altruistic ideals of a few individual employees, motivation can be found in three main sources: regulation (or the threat hereof), market factors, and innovation opportunities. All three of these sources are very relevant for the necessary implementation of ecodesign, and all three can be extrapolated down to the bottom line, in some way or other.

In terms of regulation, there is no question that Europe is currently the leader. A wealth of laws, directives, and draft guidelines are beginning to impact various branches, worldwide, if individual companies are to expect to be allowed to do business with Europe. At the same time, international standards are emerging and maturing, guiding on how to design for better environmental impacts.

Market factors that have an impact on companies’ willingness and urgency in designing for the environment include customer demands (especially in B2B value chains), the risk of a bad image (or the chance of a good one), and competitors’ moves in an environmentally improved direction. Of course, there is also the possibility of new markets through newly designed, radically improved environmental products.

The Innovation Opportunity

The innovation opportunity is the ability to spot the need (e.g., legislation or market factors), the solution potential (e.g., a particular technology, a new customer segment, a radically new business model), and the creative potential inside the company (e.g., creative engineers, experienced business developers, etc.) to realize your goal. The ability to spot and carefully mix these ingredients is surely the key to the success and survival of the modern company.

Under the currently intensified focus on human-generated environmental and climate problems, numerous examples of sustainable technologies, products, and system solutions are sprouting up out of industrially driven initiatives, research centers, and universities. Advances in wind and wave power generation, alternative-energy vehicles, fuel cell technology experiments, and zero-energy houses are but a few of many exciting initiatives. A major motivation for these initiatives is the recognition that the goals of environmental and sustainable development can also be conducive to innovation and business creation.

What’s the Next Step in Ecodesign Strategy?

Motivated? The next step, then, is to begin concrete and focused action toward the creation and implementation of an ecodesign strategy for your business. Map out the life cycle of your product and uncover the environmental hotspots. Identify the key stakeholders connected to the product and try to envisage their contribution to the product’s environmental impact. Scan for new/alternative technologies and test their feasibility next to existing technologies—both technology-wise and business-wise. If your business model discourages environmental improvements (in the product or its usage), consider changing it. Dip down into the global toolbox of ecodesign tools and select the most appropriate tools for your business.

There is a great opportunity for businesses to create a new and positive agenda, where the focus is on all the good that companies can do for the environment, society, and economic growth. The individual company has a unique opportunity to utilize its access to free markets, innovative staff, and potentially willing users to generate significant environmental benefits, which, at the same time, satisfy users’ needs and create a market success. Such a positive agenda must, of course, be based on a high involvement of the competencies of the companies’ own employees, as well as those of partners in the value chain. Ecodesign for the appliance industry need not be limited to the product, but extended to the whole process of sustainable business creation.

 

About the Author: Tim McAloone 

Tim McAloone is associate professor of Product Development at the Department of Management Engineering at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). He works closely with Danish and international industry, finding new methods and models for a wide range of product development issues, such as ecodesign, product/service-systems, and product innovation. He has a PhD from Cranfield University and a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Manchester Metropolitan University.

Have a comment about McAloone’s editorial? Post your response on the APPLIANCE Talk blog: ApplianceMagazine.com/blog/

 

 

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