Beyond green factories: The power of eco-design

Did you know that 80% of a product’s environmental impacts are locked in at the design stage?

That figure was released in the European Commission’s Sustainable Product Policy. Perhaps the most powerful part of that statement is the phrase “locked in”. It tells you just how important the design stage is. When we start talking about sustainable manufacturing and the conversation turns to green factories, we’ve already made a mistake.

True sustainable manufacturing begins long before the raw materials get anywhere near the production facility.

It has been suggested that the term “sustainable manufacturing” is self-contradictory, an oxymoron, like a ‘working holiday’, an ‘open secret’, ‘organized chaos’. I don’t agree. Sustainable manufacturing can exist. It must. What it requires is a shift in focus.

A man designs a product at a desk

Most environmental impacts are locked in at the design stage

Attention to detail is vital, but equally vital is the bigger picture, from sustainable manufacturing to product lifecycle management. From there we must take a further step back to create fully sustainable value chains encompassing every provider, every organisation, every stakeholder that somehow adds value to the creation of a product from the basic raw materials onwards.

In the case of sustainable manufacturing, it’s useful to address the issue from two angles, production and consumption.

We can improve the way we make things, but we must also improve the things we make

The uncomfortable truth is, it’s not just how we make things, it’s what we are making that is important. It doesn’t matter how sustainable your production facility is if you’re making products that will never be environmentally friendly due to their design limitation.

A vision for sustainable manufacturing needs to focus on more than green factories, we need to be creating green products in the first place. Otherwise, It’s like putting the cart before the horses.

We must always remember that manufacturing is just one part of a much larger product lifecycle. When you consider a product in terms of its full context, it becomes clear how important it is not to concentrate all your efforts on just one stage of the cycle. The process of making things begins long before we actually start putting components together.

For a product to be truly sustainable, consideration needs to begin at the design and creation stage. With Smart Digital Reality™ solutions we can create multiple design iterations in a virtual space without incurring any environmental impact at all.

We can test the impacts of different design decisions without waste. We can calculate hundreds of thousands of variables maximising energy efficiency from production through to recycling – at every stage of the lifecycle, from production through consumption to recycling. This is the essence of eco-design, and it is greatly enhanced by smart manufacturing. Integration with digital technology, like AI and Machine learning, big data analytics and the industrial internet of things, provides designers with incredible insights.

Eco-design means design for sustainability, design for circularity. By its nature it’s more complicated because there are so many more considerations. We are approaching a future where nothing ever becomes obsolete, instead products are designed to be upgraded, refurbished, remanufactured and reused.

That’s where a full lifecycle assessment comes in and to achieve that we need collaboration and engagement with everyone along that chain of interactions. Collaboration throughout the cycle will help us identify areas for improvement in design and manufacture, all aligned to the achieve the sustainability we need.

Sustainable production with greener factories

My vision for sustainable production focuses on data. There’s an old saying, what you can’t measure you can’t improve. These days we measure everything and we have the unprecedented ability to create lightning fast feedback loops that simply weren’t possible in the past.

a production line with robotic arms and an observer with an ipad showing graphs

Inline metrology products provide instant feedback loops

The digital space gives us so many capabilities to reduce the environmental impacts of production facilities, maximise resource utilisation and eliminate waste. One of the biggest ways that can happen is through optimising workflows and processes. Manufacturing can consume vast amounts of energy and resources so we need to make sure we’re operating as efficiently as possible. We need to be using renewables wherever possible and recycling any biproducts we create.

With smart connected solutions, we can even move production of products nearer to the end user and reduce environmental impacts that way. Imagine a world populated with a series of connected factories that could shift production from one object to another based on global demand trends. I believe the near future will bring much greater democratisation of production. Digital technologies will empower smaller companies, even individuals, to design and create their own products. This kind of development reduces the gap between production and consumption. It brings many of the sustainability issues into sharp focus. Cause and effect become clearer and that makes it much harder to ignore the environmental impacts of design decisions.

Over the years there has been a great deal of investment in green factories. But if a sustainable factory makes unsustainable products, it undermines all the hard work. A real change in manufacturing can only take place if we take a broader approach.

Connected digital solutions are a driving force for sustainability

Building sustainability into a product throughout the entire value chain requires a high level of connectivity. The idea of a digital product passport is surely a part of the solution. This is a product specific set of data which would enhance the traceability of a product and all the materials within it.

If it were adopted, a digital product passport would provide valuable information to whoever is in possession of the item. Data might include the origin, composition, repair and disassembly options. It would also make it very clear if a product has been created with sustainability in mind.

Currently there is a disassociation between production, consumption and end of life, not just in manufacturing but in many industries. Often in the western world, the food we eat has visited more countries than we have. There are more country names on the labels of our clothing than on the pages of our photo albums.

A digital product passport as environmental insurance

A digital product passport is just one of many digital solutions that will come together to form a new sustainable model for production and consumption and I am very excited and optimistic to see it happen. For it to work there needs to be large scale buy in from all the key players, this will guarantee availability and standardization of data.

Imagine a world where every manufactured object contains within it a kind of industrial DNA, all the details of its raw materials, the instructions of how it was made and how it might be taken apart, refurbished or upgraded.

A digital product passport would serve this function and much more. As a product goes through its lifecycle it would check-in with its designers, receiving a stamp on its passport at key life stages. These stages would be feedback points where actual usage data goes back to the manufacturer for comparison against a digital twin.

About the author

Image of author Marion Rouzeaud

Marion Rouzeaud, Global Sustainability Director at Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence, is responsible for leading transformative initiatives for a greener future. With a focus on ESG, sustainability, and diversity, she champions women’s empowerment and sustainable practices. An ESCP Business School EMBA graduate, Marion drives positive change through strategic leadership and advocacy for a more equitable world.


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