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The Role Of Sustainable Product & Factory Design

By examining the entire lifecycle of the manufactured product -- from the conceptual design of the product through to its end-of-life -- rather than simply the manufacturing process itself, enterprises will find ways to compete successfully inthis new operating environment.

By examining the entire lifecycle of the manufactured product -- from the conceptual design of the product through to its end-of-life -- rather than simply the manufacturing process itself, enterprises will find ways to compete successfully in this new operating environment.

Historically, strong performance in the U.S. manufacturing sector has been closely correlated with national economic recovery. So the recent upticks in manufacturing production are a welcome sign,(1) as are the promises by political leaders to prioritize policies that bolster domestic manufacturing. Yet there are significant – and less well publicized - hurdles to conquer in order to restore the United States’ leadership position in manufacturing.  

Currently, U.S. manufacturers claim to face a 20% cost disadvantage in the global market due to a combination of factors which include rising material prices, variable demand, supply chain disruptions, and regulatory demands(2).Of particular concern are the emerging compliance requirements - domestic or international -that ban certain chemicals or seek to internalize the externalities associated with energy and water use.

The New Mindset Needed

In order to grapple with such a multi-faceted set of pressures on the business, manufacturers will need to take a more expansive view of their value chain than they have to date. By examining the entire lifecycle of the manufactured product -- from the conceptual design of the product through to its end-of-life -- rather than simply the manufacturing process itself, enterprises will find ways to compete successfully int his new operating environment. In fact, studies suggest that those who assess the use of energy-intensive inputs, such as compressed air, early in product design and throughout the manufacturing lifecycle, could achieve overall energy consumption savings of as much as 20 to 30 percent. (3)

Why is this true? Because product designers impose enormous influence on the lifecycle environmental footprint of their products. One seemingly simple choice in the product design phase regarding materialsor geometry can limit the choices for manufacturing that product, from tooling design to factory layout to decommissioning options. Similarly, decisions made in the process engineering phase can limit the range of options open to a product designer – what we have come to call “manufacturability”.

This unintended “lock in” phenomenon could be avoided if manufacturers were able to take a systems approach to their value chain, examining how resource decisions at one phase affect those at another phase. This would unearth creative opportunities to improve the system’s efficiency, such as capitalizing on by-products of one production line as inputs for another or assessing the pace of supplying resources to, and removing wastes from, a production line to minimize wasted heat or compressed air. In the aggregate, and over time, these enhancements will have profound effects on factory and production performance. 

Yet faced with the complexity of simulating these varied and interacting factors, the human brain proves inadequate. It must be augmented by software design tools that can incorporate, along with aesthetics, structural elements, and the traditional architectural concerns, objectives and constraints on the manufacturing process layout and efficiency.

The New Toolset Needed

Today, optimization tools for product design and building design do exist, but in complete isolation from one another, used by entirely different industries and disciplines and often with mutually exclusive goals.

Most green building design tools today concentrate on the “envelope” (the walls and roof that surround the conditioned manufacturing space) and the energy-intensive equipment systems that condition and light the interior of said envelope. And indeed, significant improvements have been made in that envelope design via Building Information Modeling (BIM). But just as a high performance building (4) requires a deep understanding of the energy loads associated with its use and schedule (e.g. office, retail, school, etc.), manufacturing facility design should also consider the energy and water consumption effects of the systems within the facility –industrial machines, production lines, and tooling systems – which are much more complex than the typical building.

Meanwhile, most manufacturing design tools pay no attention to a factory’s envelope or equipment systems. And different tools are used by product designers than by those designing the factory in which it will be manufactured.

Fortunately, the emerging industry embrace of Digital Prototyping (DP), when coupled with BIM and the dramatic improvements in the speed and cost of cloud-based computation, signify an entirely new set of tools that could theoretically provide an end-to-end workflow with 3D, intelligent models at every level, from product, to machinery, to industrial equipment, to production line, to factory floor, to factory site.

Autodesk, in partnership with UC Berkeley’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, recently conducted interviews with large manufacturing enterprises to determine what work is needed to provide a combined BIM and DP toolset that would allow users to evaluate energy and water considerations across all levels of the manufacturing process and facility. At each step of the manufacturing process, we uncovered distinct challenges and their associated opportunities (indicated in italics):

Conceptual Design: When scoping a product design project based on customer needs assessments, one should be able to consider the environmental lifecycle costs associated with different conceptual design options. However, most design tools lack the sensitivity analyses needed to hone in on only the factors that have a relatively large environmental impact for that product’s lifecycle (e.g. the electricity drawn by a vacuum cleaner in its use tends to outweigh the footprint of the product’s material components), and as such, tend to overwhelm the user with useless data, or make the process prohibitively expensive. This is where lifecycle assessments of well-understood archetypal products, guided by product category rules(5), can deliver insight on the most impactful areas of the lifecycle.

Detailed Engineering: This portion of the workflow happens once the design team decides on form and function, and involves the sourcing of motors and circuitry, general material selection, and internal structural support of a form. In this phase, new tools like the Eco Materials Adviser by Autodesk and Granta Design (6)could be utilized to encourage the specification of alternative materials with comparable or preferable performance but lower environmental impact.

Simulation: Once material alternatives are identified, they need to be tested to ensure they meet performance and durability demands. Tests like finite element analysis offer ways to simulate real world demands on a material without a physical prototype. For example, if the product has motorized parts or circuitry that heat up when it is in use, computational fluid dynamics help engineers evaluate how those waste thermal flows could be mitigated – or taken advantage of through reuse. Good design in this area does much to reduce cooling needs and increase energy efficiency of products but would require a clearer dashboard or guidance to show how much energy efficiency is gained through optimization for thermal performance.

Manufacturing: Each product design decision prompts ancillary processes to be scheduled inside a manufacturing facility, at the machine/process, work cell, production line and facility level. For example, manufacturers increasingly want to optimize heating, cooling, and lighting needs of their building based on the efficiency of the machines operating inside. Yet to take action, manufacturers see a need for clear guidance-- perhaps through engines capable of rapid multivariate analysis-- that would point them to the variables that truly matter.

Maintenance: While many larger buyers of manufactured goods require that disassembly instructions be incorporated in product ownership manuals, the environmental attributes of the product are rarely included. As a result, those who decommission the product and aim to recover usable materials and components – effectively ‘recouping’ their energy and water footprints for other uses - are often forced to resort to trial-and-error. This wasted effort could be avoided if disassembly instructions included the environmental attributes of the product.

In all the above stages, manufacturing managers indicated that a better set of design and process management tools would help them overcome these challenges. And notably, their senior executives emphasized the importance of tackling these challenges in short-order if they are to respond to their new operating environment and renew the U.S. leadership position in manufacturing.

1. Holcomb, B. (2012) “February 2012 Manufacturing ISM Report on Business”, Institute for Supply Management Manufacturing Business Survey Committee

2. The Manufacturers Alliance/MAPI and The Manufacturing Institute (2011) “2011 Report on the Structural Cost of Manufacturing”

3. Yuan, C. et al (2006) “A Decision-Based Analysis of Compressed Air Usage Patterns in Automotive Manufacturing”, Journal of Manufacturing Systems, Vol.25/No.4

4. See, for example, the U.S.National Product Category Rule Repository

5. Granta Design, the world leader in materials information technology, has partnered with Autodesk to launch the Eco Materials Adviser.

6. Rocky Mountain Institute (2011) “10xE Principles”, see Principle #14.

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