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Lean and Green: Environmental Performance and Product Design

This articles discusses the business benefits of managing the environmental performance of products. Using the concept and tools of Design for Environment, it shows the potential for cost savings, creative inspiration, better design and competitive advantage. Untitled Document

From selecting technologies and materials, to specifying manufacturing processes, packaging, use, reuse and ultimately the product’s final disposal, engineers’ decisions influence environmental impacts during all stages of a product’s lifecycle. The challenge of improving the environmental performance of products can often lead to products or processes that are more innovative, environmentally sustainable and profitable.

Managing the environmental performance of products makes good business sense. It can be a powerful source of cost savings and creative inspiration that leads to better design and a competitive advantage.

The Design for Environment approach Defined as the practice of including environmental considerations in product development, Design for Environment, or DfE, is a practical approach engineers in many industries are using to foster innovation and create value for business and society. DfE is a systematic approach to integrating environmental criteria into the product development process, with the goal of reducing the environmental impacts of products and processes. DfE can be used to focus on particular areas, such as packaging or material selection. However, it is most effective when multidisciplinary teams use a whole-system engineering approach from the outset of product development.

Whole-system engineering:

  • treats products as “integrated systems,” not simply a collection of materials, components and technologies;
  • focuses on optimizing the entire product system’s functionality and value;
  • requires collaboration among traditional engineering disciplines and other business specialties, such as marketing, accounting and operations; and
  • results in multiple benefits, including lower production, operating and capital costs; improved performance; and reduced use of materials and energy.

A DfE program brings environmental considerations into the mix of such traditional design criteria as performance, cost and aesthetics. The product development process does not have to be reinvented; rather, DfE provides opportunities for new information and approaches to become a part of the existing process. Integrating DfE into product development involves three main tasks:

  • researching new types of information, including the environmental impact of materials, components and processes;
  • identifying new information sources, since environmental information must be collected from both upstream suppliers and downstream partners; and
  • making different types of decisions.

You may have to choose between either satisfying environmental criteria or fulfilling other product requirements. But often, a whole-system engineering approach results in win/win solutions that meet both goals. Product development teams can use numerous tools and methods to support these tasks, ranging from simple checklists and matrices, to complex lifecycle analysis software. The range and complexity of the tools used will depend largely on your program goals, the decisions you anticipate and your budget.

Frequently, DfE pilot projects focus on the redesign of existing products, enabling tools and methods to be tested within a real product development environment, without affecting the critical path of new product development. Pilot projects provide an opportunity to profile the environmental impacts of “typical” products. Results are often used to modify next generation product development. Whatever the methodology and tools selected, the common theme is that DfE uses lifecycle thinking to consider the entire product system–from resource extraction, to component production, assembly, distribution, use, reuse and, ultimately, the end of the product’s life.

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