Sustainability is not just a nice-to-have

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Sustainability is not just a nice-to-have. It’s now mandatory. When it comes to designing new products, technology can help us deliver both a cleaner planet and economic growth, writes Autodesk’s Zoé Bezpalko

More and more companies are prioritising sustainability because the twin pressures of governments and customers are forcing them to do just that – finally! The world can’t afford to wait any longer.

From boot-strapped start-ups to large enterprises, we’re seeing significant investments being poured into creating more sustainable products and reducing energy consumption and waste in manufacturing.

It’s good for business and it’s commonsense survival instincts. In a 2022 study of 850 companies worldwide, conducted by strategy firm Boston Consulting Group, 80% said they plan to increase their investments in sustainability.

The European Net-Zero Industry Act and the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) both provide public funds specifically for manufacturers to reduce carbon emissions.

The IRA provides nearly $6 billion to industrial and manufacturing facilities engaged in energy-intensive industrial processes. It can help fund installation and implementation of new technologies or even early-stage engineering studies to prepare a facility to lower its emissions.

Public funding is moving sustainability away from being considered a costly requirement and toward becoming a legitimate growth opportunity.


Digitalisation’s role

Research shows that, in some parts of the world, digitalisation of manufacturing has greater potential to reduce CO2 emissions than in it does in other energy-intensive sectors such as agriculture, construction and mobility.

Technology for sustainable design and manufacturing is nothing new. Over the years, product design software companies have rolled out software that recommends more ecological materials or suggests other methods of decreasing a product’s environmental impact.

Developing that technology has been crucial, of course. But unfortunately, previous generations of this tech have been cumbersome to use, functioning outside of a product designer’s natural workflow, and required data or expertise not in a designer’s scope. As a result, the tools have not been widely adopted.

I’ve spent years working side by side with product designers and engineers, in various countries, to understand their design-andmake processes, their passion for creating products that positively impact peoples’ lives and disgust at seeing them in landfills, and the challenges involved in designing for sustainability. I’ve identified three common historical barriers.

Sustainability comes last. The sustainability challenge has often been outsourced to a lifecycle analysis expert, costing time and money that designers rarely have. Sustainability analysis has been done at the end of the product design process, if at all, after critical decisions have been made and a product’s impact is locked in.

Sustainability loses to other priorities, too. Designers frequently juggle too many contradictory priorities during product development. And sustainability has been a lower-priority criteria than cost.

Sustainability analysis requires big data. Calculating the total carbon footprint of a product typically requires a lot of data on use, transportation, end-of-life and more – data not typically accessible to and known by a designer.

Given how a designer’s decisions cascade through a product’s life, their impact on a product’s carbon footprint is critical and outsized. In fact, it’s estimated that over 80% of product-related environmental impacts are determined during the design phase.

Fully aware of this issue, at Autodesk, we are working hard to address the challenges that all our customers, and particularly the product designers among them, encounter when trying to use technology to reduce impact.

Decisions made by a product designer have an impact on that product’s carbon footprint that is both critical and outsized

A new generation

The next generation of sustainability tools needs to address the common barriers I’ve identified. Autodesk’s tools integrate sustainability insights directly into designers’ existing tools and workflows. A concept’s real-time sustainability score is available, like a fuel gauge on the dashboard, throughout the development process, giving designers the power to make informed sustainability choices at the earliest stages of their work.

In these new tools, carbon insights are provided, along with criteria such as materials costs, supply chain risks and compliance measures. These tools give designers the information they need to make better decisions, more quickly.

An example of this new approach is the Makersite add-on for Autodesk Fusion 360, which enables a designer to instantly get CO2 and materials cost assessments, calculated side by side for smart tradeoffs, without leaving their CAD/design environment. Lower-carbon materials are recommended to the designer, and no data entry is required in order to get a sustainability measure and actionable recommendations.

To reduce environmental impact on a large scale, we need many more accessible sustainability tools of the kind that I’ve described. With advanced technologies like cloud-powered artificial intelligence and machine learning, generative design, additive manufacturing and open access to platforms and data now in our toolboxes, we have a constellation of new capabilities to take on our global responsibilities, to overcome what has previously stymied us and help address the climate crisis.

It’s this generation’s mandate to effect change and to leverage technology to succeed in that challenge.

About the author:

Zoé Bezpalko is an environmental engineer and designer who strongly believes in the strategic use of technology and design as key to solving global issues like climate change.

She is Autodesk’s Senior Sustainability Strategy Manager.


This article first appeared in DEVELOP3D Magazine

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