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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Sustainable Design as a Balancing Act

Desktop Engineering
Jan 1, 2012

Using Sustainable Minds’ browser-based environmental impact calculator, designers at Fred Sparks examine greener alternatives to existing solutions. Shown here is a comparative report of different versions of sunglasses.

The sleek mobile tablet at your fingertips, the stylish sunglasses in your pocket, and the point-and-shoot camera you use to capture your Kodak moments--they all have an ecological lifespan that’s much longer than you think. The time the product remains in your possession--its duration of operation and service--may be just a few months (a pair of sunglasses) to a couple of years (a tablet or a digital camera), but its ecological footprint has been established long before you pick it up from your local mall. It will continue to grow long after its disposal. A series of decisions made in the manufacturing process--using polycarbonate instead of scratch-resistant borosilicate materials for a lens, or using injection molding instead of machining for a latch--affects a product’s environmental impact.

Depending on the size of the product and the ease with which it can be recycled, many products will likely end up in a waste stream, literally swelling the size of a landfill somewhere. Many city-dwelling consumers would gladly reclaim some precious countertop and desktop space by getting rid of old microwaves, broken electric fans, and damaged LCD monitors, but, confronted with inconvenient disposal options, they’ll be tempted to dump them with the trash or leave them in a street corner.

Developed first and foremost to express a product’s geometric shape, most engineering software titles can now help you evaluate a design’s aesthetics (with photorealistic rendering), durability (with finite element analysis), and manufacturability (with simulation of computer-controlled machining), but they’re still primitive when it comes to environmental assessment. However, in the last few years, a number of companies have begun to develop software tools to address lifecycle assessment (LCA).

There’s still no consensus on where the lifecycle begins and ends: In your environmental assessment of a design, should you, for instance, include the ecological impact of early prototypes later discarded? But most LCA software users and software developers seem to agree that impact calculation has to include more than the manufacturing bill of materials (BOM).

A Sustainable Baseline
The office of Fred Sparks, an industrial design agency, is perched along South Kingshighway Boulevard, within a short distance from Tower Grove Park in St. Louis. The firm has, quite literally, helped shaped many familiar household products, ranging from football helmets and golf bags to outdoor furniture.

Who is Fred, you ask? Well, there is no Fred per se. It’s just a personification of the three founders: Ken Harris, Aaron Brookhart and Brandon Hefer.

Fred Sparks is often hired as a design consultant to develop sustainable solutions to existing products. Because its role is consultative, the firm doesn’t always have access to 3D CAD models of the products. “Sometimes, those files exist in a factory somewhere in China, and the factory doesn’t want to give up that [intellectual property],” observes Harris.

By contrast, Harris finds that it’s a lot easier to obtain a physical unit of the product itself, allowing him and his team to disassemble it to understand how its subcomponents work together. For Fred Sparks, the ideal LCA software turns out to be Sustainable Minds, an environmental impact assessment program delivered in a browser-based interface.

Terry Swack, co-founder and CEO of the program’s eponymous, Cambridge, MA-based manufacturing company, will tell you there is no such thing as a green product. There are only greener products. Every product has some impact on the environment. Nevertheless, as responsible designers, you can make an effort to reduce the anticipated impact, or find an alternative that creates the least impact. For consultants like Fred Sparks, the first task is establishing a baseline.

“We have to know what the impact of a particular product is,” says Harris. “We can disassemble an object, weigh its materials, use Sustainable Minds to get a benchmark, then we use different design strategies to reduce the environmental footprint.”
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