Design for sustainability with engineering simulation

The seminal 1987 United Nations Report Our Common Future’ defines sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’

Despite the multilateral responses to this report (such as the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the subsequent Paris Environmental Agreements in 2015), alarming trends clearly demonstrate why many argue that sustainability is the biggest challenge in the history of our species – on this, the one hospitable planet that we know we can survive on.

  • A 2019 United Nations report forecasts a global population of 9.7 billion people by 2050
  • Between 1988 and 2015, 100 companies were responsible for 71% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report published by the Carbon Disclosure Project
  • Between 1880 and 1980, global annual temperature increased by around 0.07 degrees Celsius per decade. Since then, this has doubled to 0.18 degrees Celsius every 10 years. The five warmest years on record occurred after 2015. (National Resources Defense Council, 2021)
  • Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost 1.3 million square kilometres of forest – that’s more than the combined land mass of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (World Bank, 2016)

Indeed, it is estimated that we would need four planet Earths to maintain our lifestyle in the developed world if current population demographics and consumption trends continue this way to 2050! Of course, we can affect these trend projections by our personal, regional, national and company choices today.

What exactly does all this mean for manufacturing, specifically design & engineering?

Manufacturing processes contribute to CO2 emissions and environmental pollution as well as to the intensive use of our world’s precious energy, raw materials and water resources. The need to address sustainability has never been more critical for manufacturers in all industries. Sustainability is changing the face of commerce globally and as we enter the era of Industry 4.0, ‘Digital Twins’ and autonomous processes, it will be a key part of every manufacturer’s digital transformation initiative.

On the plus side, I would argue that computer-aided engineering (CAE) in its 50-year history has been quietly addressing many of the underlying issues of sustainability. If we break sustainability down into its component parts and the solution areas where CAE influences the conceptual design stage, and where the most cost savings (and ROI) can be affected with the biggest impact on the final product’s carbon footprint, I see these outcomes:

  • Delivering new renewable energy projects (wind, wave, tidal, solar…)
  • Delivering smart, energy efficient buildings and built environment landscapes
  • Enabling optimal 3D printing for lightweighting of transportation vehicles
  • Designing and manufacturing next generation eMobility solutions
  • Acoustic pollution abatement in urban and transport environments
  • Minimising product waste at conceptual ideation and in manufacturing processes
  • Understanding materials inside products and their full sustainability impact including ‘reduce,
    re-use and recycle’ impacts
  • Ensuring legislative environmental compliance at the conceptual design stage

With predictive design and engineering simulation tools addressing all physics types, engineers have been conceptualising better products and improving existing processes and thus getting longer product lifespans by making more efficient product designs.

Engineers also minimise material waste by devising lighter and more efficient products earlier in design cycles, reducing noise pollution on the drawing board, improving existing products and processes (saving on carbon emissions and materials), creating transportation vehicles with lower drag and thus lower CO2 emissions and producing greater fuel efficiency.

Engineers can now reduce polluting gases at source with better designs for various products and processes across a wide range of industries. CAE is increasingly eliminating the need for physical prototyping with all the waste and energy usage these prototypes require because virtual prototyping and the emergence of ‘Digital Twins’ in manufacturing is occurring much more widely now.

Figure 1: Examples of sustainability-related CAE simulations using Hexagon’s Design & Engineering Software Suite

Driving a sustainable future with design and engineering tools

We have reached what is frequently called Industry 4.0, leading to autonomous processes across factories, facilities, transportation, farming, mining, cities and even nation states. CAE is both a source of simulation data and a glue to the ‘digital data thread’ needed to deliver smart manufacturing cost savings, productivity improvements and, ultimately, better quality products designed with the intent to meet all environmental challenges from concept to retirement. I believe that all consumer products will need to be sustainable by design in future.

As is nearly always the case, science and engineering will have many of the answers to our global sustainability challenges. I am confident that design and engineering simulations will be at the forefront because computer-aided-engineering tools have been proven to reduce waste at the conceptual design stage, helping to reduce physical prototyping, deliver right-first-time customised solutions, fuel the renewables and eMobility revolution, and ultimately bring design-for-recyclability to the fore for the highest business ROI possible in product development, and then throughout the complete product lifecycle.

Download our whitepaper to learn more about how you can save the planet with design and engineering simulation.

And for manufacturers in the wind energy space, be sure to look out for our ‘Accelerate Wind Energy Revolution with CAE’ webinar series, exploring technologies that drive performance, increase reliability and reduce costs in wind energy. Don’t miss the first episode: Introduction to Wind Energy Challenges and Accelerating Adoption with CAE Simulation and Inspection.


  • Keith Hanna

    Dr. Keith Hanna is MSC Software’s Vice President of Marketing and has nearly 30 years of technical and marketing experience in the CFD, CAE, EDA and PLM industries. He holds BSc and PhD engineering degrees from the University of Birmingham, England, and is a respected commentator on the CFD/CAE industry, as well as a pioneer in the use of CFD in sport.

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