Reaching your ecodesign goals through collaboration
Trying to influence product design as an LCA expert is a well-known challenge. Assessing sustainability at the early design stages is very difficult: the design is still evolving and you don’t have all data yet. Assessing it at the end is much easier, but then your role is limited to ‘environmental book-keeping’ – it is too late to extensively change the design. So, what can you do?
You might think that making the designers do the sustainability assessment themselves would be a solution. However, LCA is complex and requires specific knowledge, and designers already face many constraints. They just can’t take on the extra task.
Collaborate with designers
The solution for assessing sustainability at early stages lies in collaboration. By looking up previous LCAs on similar products, you can provide designers with some guidance as to where the impacts originate from. This information, combined with product experience, will allow the designers to quickly understand which components or sub-assemblies are the main contributors. Moreover, designers can tell you how the new product will be different from previous generations.
With these insights, you will know where rough assumptions are enough, and where you should put more effort into data collection and modeling.
For example, my experience with electronic engineers was that, when electricity consumption during the use phase was the main driver, they were quickly able to point out a key contributor in the power supply transformers. And when the length of service life was the point, they easily pointed out electrolytic capacitors (and their tendency to dry up over time) as an obvious limiting factor.
Get contributions from business experts
But there is even more latitude earlier in product development for introducing features that can make a huge difference on environmental impact. It’s also a time where the vision of the actual final design, and thus the exact sustainability assessment, is still very blurry.
In this stage, the company’s business experts can provide you with the best input. Their position and experience in the field allow them to look outside the traditional boundaries of the product, and to think of the product as integrated into the system where it will be used. And even more importantly, business experts’ understanding of the customer’s needs and how they actually use the products really helps to effectively put the function of the product at the center of the reflection.
Big impact reductions from early-stage decisions
Business experts can make the kinds of decisions that designers don’t have the authority to. As an example, let’s look at monitoring in high-voltage substations. Transformers take measurements from the power lines at high current. The measurements are brought to the monitoring devices in a nearby building, which digitizes this current and makes use of the information.
A lot of effort has been put in over the years to increase the efficiency of these devices: smaller boxes, lower electricity burdens and integration of functions. But the environmental burden does not originate in the devices: it is caused by the dissipation of the high current in the cables running from the line to the building.
The solution, imagined by business experts, is adding a device that digitizes the measurement right at the power line. This was found to save as much as 50% of the electricity consumption for a whole substation’s life, as well as a substantial amount of copper during production.
Work together for the best results
Although it’s not possible to perform detailed systematic sustainability assessments at an early stage in product design, collaboration with the right experts can help you simplify the model using assumptions derived from experience and knowledge of the products.
And, after all, is that not the main goal of a sustainability adviser in product development projects?
Digital Solutions Expert
I believe companies and organisations need to make drastic changes in the way they do business. In my opinion, LCA is the best tool to help people focus on actually relevant changes. It can help companies steer in more sustainable directions without falling for obvious, but sometimes misleading, options.