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Product, Service & Design Innovation
What Archimedes Can Teach Us About Sustainable Innovation

If we could transport ourselves to Sicily about 2,250 years ago, we might get there just in time to hear Archimedes famously say, “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I shall move the world.” He couldn’t have imagined, almost 23 centuries down the road, how urgently we would need to pull every lever available to save the health of that world and its inhabitants.

If we could transport ourselves to Sicily about 2,250 years ago, we might get there just in time to hear Archimedes famously say, “Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I shall move the world.” He couldn’t have imagined, almost 23 centuries down the road, how urgently we would need to pull every lever available to save the health of that world and its inhabitants.

One of the most overlooked sustainability levers may well be a missing link in business software – specifically, Product Lifecyle Management (PLM) software. For those not familiar with PLM tools, this well-established yet briskly growing software category is the gateway through which millions of physical products pass on their way to commercialization. Among its many valuable functions, the software is a repository for product requirements and then helps track and manage those products through manufacturing and useful life. Leading PLM software companies have become more strategic and have recently been viewing their applications more holistically as product innovation platforms. Broadly defined, these platforms build on historically tight linkages to related software for computer-aided design and product data management, and also help enable development of the software living inside products (or in the cloud) that increasingly make them “smart” and connected for an Internet-of-Things world. So where exactly do sustainable innovation and beyond-compliance (voluntary) product stewardship fit? That is precisely the issue; in too many instances, they don’t.

The continued rise of PLM software usage in manufacturing companies presents an enormous lever to pull for mitigating the impacts of climate change, water depletion, and hazardous substances on both human health and companies’ resilience. A huge percentage of physical products are designed and managed on the platforms of just a handful of software companies (Among PLM leaders with significant market share are Dassault Systèmes, Siemens, PTC, Autodesk, Aras and Oracle). Having discussed sustainable innovation with most of these companies within the past year, we could guesstimate (as there is little hard data on this yet) that the products designed with their software, collectively, account for as much as 25 percent of the world’s carbon footprint when considering product sourcing, manufacturing, transportation, usage, and end of life/recycling/upcycling. In fact, one of those companies estimated that products designed with its software alone account for somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the global footprint.

While some PLM platforms do a good job of integrating product lifecycle analysis (LCA), this occurs only after a product is designed and its specifications determined. A big win for sustainability would be to also integrate environmental performance KPIs into these tools at the front end of product design, before a product’s features and specifications have been finalized. How various features and functions map to those sustainability KPIs should help determine what features each product will have and, at least as important, what features should be left out. This is especially critical now with the IoT explosion of smart, connected products. Watch for an avalanche of product feature bloat (over-featuring) just because it’s possible to greatly expand a product’s capabilities when it has sensors, memory and networking components for IoT functionality (In a Sustainable Brands piece last year, “The Internet of Things: Net Positive or Negative for Sustainability,” I posed this question: ‘Who is doing the analysis to ensure that smart, connected products – with their great potential to save energy, water and other natural capital – won’t ultimately be net negative for the environment?’ I asked because of the environmental impact of sourcing, manufacturing, transporting, and end-of-life management of all of these additional components in what were previously “dumb” products with fewer parts).

Integrating sustainability at the front end of design for all products would be a win-win-win – for companies using the software, for the PLM software providers, and for the planet. It’s great that there are more emerging, purpose-built software solutions for eco-design and voluntary product stewardship, but with rare exception they are not integrated into PLM solutions. To be fair, PLM platforms’ raison d’être has been much more about helping manufacturers design and make products right than about making the right products. The latter is arguably more in the purview of product/project portfolio management software (PPM). And those applications should also be doing much more to integrate sustainability KPIs at the front end of deciding which products to make and what features they should have.

Bottom line, whether PLM or PPM, is that innovation platforms that aren’t sustainable innovation platforms are underserving products companies. They have powerful potential to turn a company’s sustainability consciousness into concrete, evaluative tools to influence product decisions in ways that produce tangible short- and long-term business performance benefits. And for companies that are not as far along on the sustainability journey, such tools can provide an onramp for systematic integration of basic sustainable innovation and design considerations.

Like all enterprise software companies, PLM and PPM providers live or die by how much real business value they enable for their customers. Why not seize the opportunity to help those customers make their supply chains more resilient, strengthen brand reputation, protect their margins as non-renewable raw materials become scarcer and more expensive, and attract and retain top talent that values responsible product development?

And that brings us back to our friend, Archimedes. Since we all know that linear business as usual can’t possibly reverse climate trends, adequately preserve natural resources, or protect human health by replacing enough chemicals of concern in products, leverage is everything in solving these problems. Sustainability-sensitive innovation software that integrates environmental performance KPIs upstream of design would be a long lever and can even provide a place for Archimedes to stand. I’m sure he would relish the opportunity.

If you’re a manufacturing company, your views would be welcomed on how you’re addressing these issues. If you’re a sustainability leader in your company and don’t know what PLM or PPM solution your company is using, ask – and ask what those solutions are doing to integrate environmental performance criteria beyond compliance. If you’re a PLM or PPM software provider and are further along on sustainability integration at the front end of design than it may appear, please help bring the Sustainable Brands community of great companies up to date on your progress. Meanwhile, anyone who wants to explore this topic further is welcome to view my conference presentation from the Congress on the Future of Engineering Software.