Designing more sustainable products requires both changes in how designers approach their work and quick access to information that can justify alternative designs and materials. Our last editorial focused on why and how product development consultancies are stepping up to sustainability, and the significant challenges they face. In this piece, we look at how life cycle analysis (LCA) tools are helping some of these issues, and also where these tools fall short. We conclude with our requirements for an approach and accompanying tools to better integrate LCA and product design. We will explore this suggested approach further in our next article.
This is the second in a three-part series by EcoShift, a sustainability and LCA consultancy, and Carbon Design Group, a product design and development firm. It looks at the complex challenges of sustainable product design, the current state of LCA practices and tools, and our vision of integrating sustainability throughout the development process.
Software Options & Limitations
Software for analyzing product life cycle environmental impact has been around for years. SimaProTM and GaBiTM, the leading LCA software options, are technically superior to other tools because they allow access to high-quality life cycle inventory data, entry of data from a specific manufacturing or processing site, and flexible modeling of product components and life cycle stages. But their linear approach and the advanced user capabilities required make them inappropriate for the product designer, who needs to be able to compare multiple design options iteratively. The LCA approach of SimaProTM and GaBiTM works great for products that are already designed, but not for products that don’t yet exist.
New tools have attempted to narrow the gap between product designers and LCA information. Sustainable MindsTM is a web-based platform allowing the user to do ‘simplified’ LCAs and easily compare multiple design options at once. This overcomes some issues, but creates new problems. First, data is limited to certain databases, and entering additional data takes time and costs extra money. Second, modeling life cycle phases is not as flexible as in SimaproTM and GaBiTM.
Other tools integrate a simplified LCA process into product design software, such as SolidWorks SustainabilityTM. Bringing LCA information directly into SolidWorksTM 3D CAD design software is very appealing, since it allows the designer to assess impacts during the CAD process. However, this tool is technically limited, so results may not be sufficiently accurate. There is limited process and material data, only one process is allowed per material, and there is no option to add site-specific data. Locations used to calculate transportation and use phase impacts are generalized to continents, which can mask critical differences in transportation modes and regional energy mixes.
In sum, these tools make it easy for anyone to do an LCA quickly, but the information produced may not be sufficiently robust for decision-making. In fact, a study comparing an assembly using GaBiTM and SolidWorksTM found significantly different results for some impact categories.
These technical issues may cause us to lose focus of other issues that lead us to question the utility of the LCA approach for product design. First, not all product data are available during the design phase, nor are they necessarily fixed once design is complete. Second, LCA brings an added layer of organization that can be cumbersome to manage in fast-moving design firms. Third, LCA causes us to use limited designer resources on analyzing materials substitutes, potentially at the expense of seeding innovation of alternate designs.
These issues stem from the fact that design is an inherently explorative, generative and iterative process, while LCA is an evaluative one. For analyzing an existing product, LCA can be very useful, but this can only inform the designer of where improvements should be made in the next version. At the start of the product design process, which involves comparing a wide range of materials, processes, and functionalities, LCA has limited usefulness. For comparing specific options on a single decision point, LCA is useful, but we run in the technical challenges described above. Finally, for comparing two completed product designs, LCA is very useful, but the design phase is over and the opportunity to improve before impact occurs is lost.
Is there a sweet spot where LCA can be useful, accurate and fast enough for designers? It seems that at best, integrating LCA can aid in institutional learning about the impact of various materials and processes. At worst, it can draw designers away from innovation towards incremental and minimal improvements. On the other hand, designers need to be able to tap the vast body of sustainability information to make better products. LCA clearly can’t replace environmental design strategies, but we hope it can enhance them.
Requirements for Integrating Design & LCA
We conclude this piece with our requirements for integrating sustainability and LCA principles into product design, which are a set of practices and tools that:
- Initiate the design process with ecodesign principles
- Recognize the iterative process of design
- Allow designers to easily access and aggregate data about the impacts of materials
- Provide sufficient accuracy to make LCA information useful
- Store collective designer knowledge and make it easily available
- Incorporate costs associated with alternative designs.
We’ll look more closely at applying these requirements in the third and final article in this series.