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What are some elements of sustainable product design?

With waste from electronics, plastics and other materials growing at a frightening rate, manufacturers can help address the problem with sustainable product design efforts.

The first focus of sustainability efforts is often directed at the more immediate and visible factors in operations...

and procurement. Companies look for ways to reduce energy use by switching to more efficient lighting, optimize compressed air usage and delivery -- compressors use a lot of energy -- and look at processes that involve heat.

Procurement teams seek out green suppliers, identify renewable materials and components wherever they can, and work with suppliers to reduce the harmful effects of packaging, handling and transportation. And, of course, there is a continuing focus on the waste stream and any air or water pollution that can be reduced.

Sustainable product design rests on reduction

Ultimately, though, one of the most important and longest-lasting components of sustainable product design involves the design of the products themselves: To reach the highest level of sustainability, manufacturers must use less material in the first place. As new products proceed from initial idea to design, then on to development, prototyping, testing and final refinement, engineers should continually look for ways to reduce the amount of material required to make a product.

Engineers should continually look for ways to reduce the amount of material required to make a product.

Of course, there will always be tradeoffs between material content, functionality, durability, reliability and customer satisfaction. Success comes from the removal of any and all material that does not enhance the quality of the product -- quality as it applies to the aforementioned characteristics, such as functionality, durability and so on.

Sustainable materials in products

In addition to simple material minimization, sustainability improvements can be achieved through materials substitution. In other words, part of sustainable product design is finding materials that are more sustainable, such as renewable materials or recyclables, to replace materials that cannot be replaced by natural means or that are destined for landfills at the end of the product's life.

Product stewardship

End-of-life considerations should also be part of sustainable product design. This concept is sometimes referred to as product stewardship or extended producer responsibility. In some industries, and in some areas, this is mandated.

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment regulation in the European Union, for example, requires manufacturers to provide for returning and reprocessing products, including disassembly and separation of various types of materials for recycling or disposal.

Similarly, the EU's Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive concerns itself with the reduction of certain dangerous substances commonly used in electronic and electronic equipment. RoHS compliance requires testing for the presence of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

Reduction of packaging materials

Finally, designers should also try to minimize packaging requirements as they design products. This might involve making protruding components removable or customer installable to reduce packaging size, or changes in the overall dimensions or shape of a product to make packaging more efficient.

Reduced or right-sized packaging not only reduces the amount of required packaging material, such as boxes and padding, it may also reduce overall shipping weight and volume, saving fuel and reducing emissions in transportation, while also reducing the warehouse space required.

Sustainable product design rests on reduction

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This was last published in November 2017

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