THE BLOG
04/11/2012 07:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2012

Revolutionizing Sustainable Product Design

Traditionally, companies have used the process of environmental life cycle assessment, or LCA, to benchmark their product impacts. But the time for just measuring impacts is over -- here's how leading companies are using LCAs to drive product innovation.

Kraft Foods

Engineers at Kraft Foods wanted to find a more functional packaging solution for their salad dressings -- one-gallon jugs made of high density polyethylene (HPDE) that are fairly standard in the food service industry. Their research in commercial food service kitchens showed that operators typically had to go to great lengths to get dressing out, spending time scraping the insides with a spatula and even cutting the tops off the rigid jugs.

After examining several designs, the engineers proposed a new solution: a significantly lighter, flexible, squeezable package made of nylon and polyethylene, branded the YES Pack, which stands for yield, ease and sustainability. The Kraft YES Pack delivers 99 percent yield or up to two extra servings of dressing per case, which reduces product waste.

To assess the design against their sustainability goals, Kraft engineers performed a thorough LCA with the help of consultants at leading LCA firm PE International. This study found that the YES Pack had significant environmental benefits, requiring 50 percent less energy during production, using 60 percent less plastic, and reducing CO2 emissions by 70 percent due to fewer trucks during transportation, when compared to the rigid jugs.

Kraft marketing has developed creative ways to communicate the benefits of the design and tell this green-marketing story. The YES Pack allows food service operators to extract the majority of product from the package, improving their profitability. They also communicated the YES Pack's sustainability benefits to the consumers.

Kraft is exploring how it can use LCAs to innovate further. "Sustainability is not an afterthought anymore," says Ryan Portrey, an engineer at Kraft who worked on the YES Pack. "Sustainability is here to stay, and we're integrating it into our mindset from research and development through sales and marketing. We believe that it's our responsibility to look out for our customers and the environment."

Puma

Another case of innovation is Puma's Clever Little Bag, a repackaging of its shoes with a reusable non-woven bag and cardboard inserts to replace the traditional shoebox. Puma performed a life cycle assessment to help select this design from among dozens of prototypes, which showed a reduction in carbon footprint of 10,000 tons CO2 by using the bag. Puma has even published its LCA, also performed by PE International, which compares possible design and material choices against the existing shoebox.

EMD Millipore

LCA can drive innovation in the business-to-business sector as well. EMD Millipore, the life sciences division of Merck KGaA, is committed to reducing the life cycle environmental impacts of their products. EMD Millipore recently launched ech2o™, a collection and recycling program for their laboratory water purification cartridges.

To help identify the best disposal method, they performed and published LCAs (here's an example) with the help of sustainability consultancy Pure Strategies. The LCAs showed that although the recycling scenario resulted in a slightly higher carbon footprint for some cartridges, the resulting reductions in landfill waste and resource depletion offset the impact from the added transportation. They expect these benefits to improve further as they reach greater scale with their recycling program. From the success of its Lab Water recycling program, EMD Millipore is now piloting a take-back and recycling program for its disposable products used in bio-pharmaceutical manufacturing.

"The ech2o Lab Water purification cartridge recycling program is just one of the many ways we are working to reduce the life cycle environmental impacts of our products," said Johanna Jobin, Sustainability Manager, EMD Millipore. "We understand that this is just one initiative along our sustainability journey, and we look forward to further collaborating with our customers on other sustainability solutions."

RUUD Lighting

Increasingly, tools are becoming available that allow LCA data to be brought upstream, where it can influence designers and engineers. For example, RUUD Lighting, a division of Cree, used software from my company to perform a screening-level LCA at the design stage for its BetaLED lighting fixtures. Driven by customer demands and marketing requirements to back up "green" claims for its LED solutions, they determined that the material impacts of their lighting solutions were negligible compared to the use-phase energy savings, especially when compared to traditional lighting.

"Our job is to make lighting products that are both economical and sustainable," Brian Kinnune told us, an engineering manager at RUUD Lighting. "SolidWorks® Sustainability software is helping us document our achievements and develop even greener products in the future. This is good for our business and good for the planet."

The future of product design

Just as quality assurance is no longer a differentiator but a must-have, environmental lifecycle assessment will become the de facto standard -- if not the regulated standard -- for product design. A decade from now, designers won't consider these sustainable product design examples innovative -- they'll consider them obvious, and wonder why we ever designed unsustainably.

Asheen Phansey is the North American sustainability leader for Dassault Systèmes® and sustainability product manager for the SolidWorks® brand. He also teaches sustainable business courses as an adjunct professor in the MBA program at Babson College. Dassault Systèmes is the world leader in product lifecycle management (PLM), providing solutions that enable businesses of every size and sector to design, simulate and experience tomorrow's products. You can learn more about sustainable design tools from DS SolidWorks at www.solidworks.com/sustainability, or reach Asheen at Asheen.Phansey@3ds.com.