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Start Lifecycle Assessments Now, Expert Urges

Manufacturers must use the most rigorous lifecycle assessment tools they can afford as soon as possible, rather than waiting to carry out more robust exercises, according to a speaker in an Environmental Leader webinar.

DS SolidWorks sustainability product manager Asheen Phansey told participants in Wednesday’s webinar, Bringing Lifecycle Thinking into Sustainable Design – Best Practices, that there is a hierarchy of six types of product lifecycle assessments (LCAs).

From quicker and cheaper to more comprehensive and expensive, the six types are engineering intuition, company scorecards, conceptual lifecycle thinking, qualitative matrix LCAs, industry scorecards and lifecycle assessment (see list at bottom).

Click here to watch a recording of the webinar, Bringing Lifecycle Thinking into Sustainable Design – Best Practices.

“In this hierarchy of quicker and cheaper to more rigorous and robust results, I encourage you to use the most robust assessment tool that you can afford in time and cost,” said Phansey, who is also an adjunct professor of sustainable business at Babson College.

“If engineering intuition is the only thing you can afford in the process, and you can’t get buy-in to slow down the process and do an environmental assessment, then use it. Come back later and say, ‘Did we go in the right direction?’, but at least you start that conversation… Don’t focus on full comprehensive assessment to the exclusion of something you can do earlier and quicker,” Phansey said.

Each stage has its benefits and drawbacks. Intuition, for example, tends to ignore counter-intuitive ideas. A typical LCA, on the other hand, takes $25,000 and about three months.

“So if you’re looking at a major retailer or storefront that has conservatively 10,000 SKUs, you’re talking $250 million over 2,500 years,” Phansey said. “You might even have $250,000 to spend, but the planet doesn’t have 2,500 years.”

Once a company has carried out a lifecycle assessment, whether through a quick or comprehensive process, then it is time to move onto product design or redesign, Phansey said. Good design or redesign can also beat LCA at its own game, he suggested, by designing out negative impacts to begin with.

Product design can happen on one of three levels, Phansey said. Level one is optimizing an existing system; for example, taking a car and increasing its fuel efficiency. Level two fundamentally redesigns a product itself – an example of this would be the hybrid Toyota Prius. Finally, on level three, an entire infrastructure is redesigned. Electric vehicles and their charging infrastructure are an example of this.

Even level one changes can have a significant impact, Phansey said. A company redesigning a toy might just focus on certain parts of the toy known to have a significant environmental impact. SolidWorks software can help companies with both level one and level two changes.

But Phansey hopes that SolidWorks can effect major environmental change by helping companies to level three. “Here’s why I’m in this job,” he said. “We have 400,000 commercial customers. If we can put up this dashboard in front of 400,000 customers and help them move the needle on carbon a few percent, now we have the scale of saving entire forests.”

Click here to watch a recording of the webinar, Bringing Lifecycle Thinking into Sustainable Design – Best Practices.

Phansey’s hierarchy of lifecycle assessments:

  1. Engineering intuition: Occurs when a company hears about a compound getting negative press or creating a negative environmental impact, and decides to try designing out that material.
  2. Company scorecards: The company simply records a baseline as having neutral value, and then lists different options as being either pluses or minuses. “This doesn’t take a lot of data or a comprehensive look at environmental impacts, but it’s a great starting point for a conversation,” said.
  3. Conceptual lifecycle thinking: Here the company tries to see how various sustainability concepts fit into its processes. Using various metrics, such as reducing material or optimizing distribution, the company compares the new and proposed new designs. One way to think about this is through a spider chart.
  4. Qualitative matrix LCAs: In this assessment, a company lays out the lifecycle phases along one axis, and types of environmental impacts on another axes. In each resulting box, the company assigns a number to reflect the extent of that particular impact in that particular phase. The rigor of the numbers depends on the person making the assessment, Phansey said, but the matrix layout ensures that the assessor’s thinking is a little more comprehensive.
  5. Industry scorecards: These have more rigor than company scorecards because they have to cover a broader range of manufacturing processes and products. Industry scorecards can be focused on one type of vertical application – for example, only packaging.
  6. Lifecycle assessment: This is the “state of the art”, Phansey says. It also costs the most and takes the longest. In a full lifecycle assessment, a company gathers data on several metrics, applies a lifecycle impact assessment methodology (such as CML or TRACI), then interprets the results.

Click here to watch a recording of the webinar, Bringing Lifecycle Thinking into Sustainable Design – Best Practices.

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