Embracing sustainable product design

12 August 2011

Cassandra Padbury of Cambridge Consultants looks at ways to reduce the environmental impact of a product in a competitive business environment

Over the last 50 years at Cambridge Consultants we have developed successful methodologies to address a range of differing business requirements, across a number of industries.

But are these processes for generating breakthrough products suitable, or optimised, for achieving reductions in environmental impact?

How do you reduce the environmental impact of a product in a competitive business environment where consumers may demand environmental reduction, but may not understand what that actually means, and are not yet keen to pay for it?

We anticipated this challenge and have adapted our concept generation methodology to create Ecovation. Ecovation enables us to innovate taking into account not only the cost of material, the ease of manufacturing, or the appearance of the product, but also the environmental impact of the concept.

We have incorporated sustainable thinking into a number of our product designs and recently have applied Ecovation to a vacuum cleaner and a blood glucose monitoring system.

So, what have we learnt about the challenges of improving sustainability?

Thoroughly understand your product

We start our process by conducting a thorough Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) on an existing product or concept upon which we want to improve. In order to have meaningful and focussed investigation into how you might make changes, it’s vital to ensure that the whole system is considered at this stage. The calculated impact of any aspect of the LCA depends heavily on the assumptions you make.

For example, for a product, such as a vacuum cleaner, where the majority of environmental impact is due to energy consumed during operation, the challenges are directly linked to the way the product is used; how many minutes a day/week is the vacuum cleaner used for and for what sort of activity?

Where the potential for improvement is mainly in the use phase due to a consumable element of the product, for example, lancets and test strips in a blood glucose monitoring system, considerations include how many times a day blood glucose testing is actually carried out (considering use by both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics) and whether the user actually complies with sharps disposal guidance.

It’s important to make sure you have enough knowledge and skill to conduct your LCA appropriately and allow enough time to perform this analysis. We have found it vital to include human factors information gained from interviews and observations of users to challenge the assumptions of our analysis.

Define objectives and expect conflict

As with all innovation work, it is really important to define your criteria for success. Are you looking to conceive the most sustainable product on the market or solely to comply with, for example, EuP (Energy Using Products) or EuR directives?

Do you wish to build in flexibility to allow incremental improvements along the way, for example, as “green” materials or processes become affordable? Are you looking to get this to market as swiftly as possible, or are you able to invest in process and manufacturing changes?

The criteria established at the start are used throughout the process, allowing the team and others consistent clarity as to why decisions have been taken. If you don’t define your end objectives well enough at the beginning, it’s all too easy to get bogged down in the sheer weight of data generated by the LCA and lose your way.

Environmental requirements frequently lead to conflict, and you need to be able to deal with these in your process. For the vacuum cleaner there is conflict between decreasing the energy consumption and maintaining cleaning performance, whilst being able to convince the user of this. We have built on real experience.

Two years ago we created a ‘green’ syringe design called Syreen that improves patient safety and ease of use whilst halving the resource intensity and material wastage associated with traditional pre-filled disposable syringes. During the process, our most sustainable concept design was not rated as highly as a modified design which is compatible with the current production lines. We needed to be realistic about the willingness of healthcare companies to change their filling lines, compromising to achieve an incremental reduction in environmental impact. 

Don’t lose the small things

Whilst some of our product LCAs have lead to clear focus areas, other studies show no one area that will yield significant environmental impact reduction. Our Ecovation process accommodates multiple smaller ideas and develops them side by side, shielding them from being lost when, in isolation, they appear not to make a significant contribution to the aim. A consistent marketing message and the established criteria will facilitate creative assembly of concept fragments. 

Due to growing consumer pressure and increasing regulatory demands more of our clients will be seeking to include environmental considerations in their product development. There are real opportunities for companies to respond to consumer demand for green products and services, anticipating and exceeding regulation.

We have embraced sustainable product design by creating Ecovation, which uses an LCA to focus creativity, produces and employs appropriate specification from the start and recognises the value of seemingly small ideas. We hope to challenge this process so if you have any ideas get in touch!

www.cambridgeconsultants.com

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