Design software can help improve manufacturing sustainability

Manufacturers in Australia face mounting pressures to not only increase productivity in the manufacturing process, but to ensure more sustainable manufacturing outcomes as well.

Two factors reduce the risk of updating a production process to improve its sustainability – one is using a proven methodology and the other, a proven technology. 

Lean Manufacturing and SixSigma are well-known process improvement methodologies that target and eliminate waste to drive profitability; they usually improve the environmental performance of a process at the same time. 

The other way to reduce risk is to take advantage of the latest software technology. Businesses that use a design platform with digital prototyping capabilities can develop a single 3D model that evolves from concept through manufacturing.

The model allows the designer to evaluate opportunities to reduce environmental impact throughout the manufacturing process – for example, by reducing weld energy through optimisation of material thicknesses in an assembly. 

Industrial equipment, consumer electronics, mobile phones – anything with an on/off switch -may consume many times more energy in a year than was consumed during its production or embedded in its raw materials.

In other cases, the choice of materials may be the most critical environmental factor associated with a product.

Both issues are of growing importance to customers, supply chain partners and regulators. Products with low eco-footprints offer a lower total cost of ownership, less chance of liability and fewer regulatory hurdles for producers and buyers alike.

Sustainable design practitioners work backward and analyse the impact of material choices and production processes on the product’s overall sustainability and the desired outcome.

Once the desired outcome is selected (for example lowering energy use during production by 20 per cent), the design team can pick a strategy (reduce the number of heat-treating operations) and analyse the inputs and process steps to understand the impact of each on the outcome. The team can then integrate all design data into a single digital model, streamlining the design process and improving communication.

As the model develops it becomes a more accurate digital prototype of the product, reflecting the material attributes such as weight, strength and recycled content, and process attributes such as energy intensity and water consumption. 

As the product design evolves from concept through engineering and on to production, it can be tested, modified and optimised to achieve the desired outcome. Sharing a digital model among multiple team members throughout the process helps keep them aligned and focused on achieving the intended result.

Regardless of the specific sustainable outcome and strategy selected, a digital prototype will save the design team time and money as it analyses and tests alternative options.

In many cases, the digital prototype can help predict the impact of the proposed change on the product’s characteristics and the energy consumed during its manufacture.

Armed with such data, the design team can quickly and cost-effectively experiment with different material and process variables until it discovers the optimal combination.

Multiple options for the same product can be saved at any stage, from concept through manufacturing, allowing the team to pursue multiple strategies in parallel. If the market or regulatory environment changes, the product can quickly be optimised to meet the latest conditions.

The digital prototype reduces risk by allowing the design team to incorporate changes much later in the process, increasing design decision flexibility to support sustainable product strategies.

[Karsten Hojberg is Director of Manufacturing Solutions, Autodesk Australia & New Zealand.]