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Sustainable engineering: a two-step approach to market success

Sustainable engineering can be cost-effective and also drive innovation and market success. Discover how to navigate the complexities of sustainability, prepare for impending regulations, and transform sustainability from an obligation into a strategic advantage.

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Navigating the landscape of sustainability within an organisation can be complex and overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to determine where to start and how to prepare for impending regulations. Plus, there’s a common misconception that sustainability escalates costs and requires significant additional efforts. But, as our pilot eco-design study illustrates, sustainability and profit can go hand in hand.

We’ve had promising experiences with the eco-design approach, demonstrating that integrating sustainable engineering can be cost-effective and lead to innovative improvements that enhance both the product value and environmental impact.

'Sustainability and profit can go hand in hand as integrating sustainable practices can lead to innovative improvements and enhance both product value and environmental impact.'
– Adrian Fernandez Vazquez, Expert Mechanics Engineer, Zühlke

Sustainability-driven product innovation: a two-step approach to success

Unfortunately, there is still a common misconception that sustainable engineering will drive up costs and complicate supply chain management. Yet, based on our experience, this is usually not the case, with cost reductions and efficiency gains being common outcomes. Integrating the sustainability dimension into product design not only enhances a company's environmental reputation but also opens new opportunities for market differentiation and competitive advantage. 

By adopting a sustainable engineering approach, companies can uncover and address inefficiencies that may have previously been overlooked, from rethinking supply chains and redesigning product functionalities to changing business models. Although sustainability presents complex challenges, initiating a pilot eco-design study with a representative product can help companies begin the journey in a leaner way. 

The eco-design study will identify the environmental hotspots of the product in its first phase, current-state sustainability analysis, and explore measures for impact reduction in the second phase, the eco-design discovery, as well as evaluate potential solutions, which might be applicable for a wider range of products. Successful implementation of such studies depends on a well-rounded team that combines environmental insights with technical expertise, ensuring both efficient and effective exploration of sustainable opportunities.

"" Figure 1: Infograph showing Zühlke's two-stepped approach from current-state sustainability analysis to eco-design discovery

Market trends and regulatory impact on sustainable engineering

Consumer demand for sustainable products is increasing, with sustainable products growing 7.1 times faster than conventional ones and accounting for 54.7% of CPG market growth from 2015 to 2019, as per NYU Stern. Additionally, upcoming EU regulations like the CSRD mandate more sustainable manufacturing practices and product transparency, transforming sustainability from an obligation into an opportunity to do business better. Companies are now expected to design products for extended use, ease of repair, and efficient recycling. Notable initiatives like Valtras's Reman program and Apple's Certified Refurbished products highlight the market shift towards circular business models.

These regulations and consumer preferences underscore the critical need for companies to adapt swiftly, ensuring compliance while seizing the strategic advantages of proactive sustainability practices. External pressures from supply chains, which are increasingly prioritising sustainability initiatives, exert additional pressure on companies to adopt these practices.

Initiating the journey: current-state sustainability analysis

As companies strive to make products more environmentally friendly, important questions emerge. Should different materials be used? Could changes in transportation methods reduce environmental impacts? These questions are addressed in the first phase of the current-state sustainability analysis phase, which focuses primarily on assessing the environmental impact of products.

The phase often involves conducting a screening life cycle assessment (LCA), a process that provides objective, science-based conclusions within a delimited timeframe. This helps confidently establish an environmental baseline analysis of the whole lifecycle, from materials extraction to production of the product, throughout the use-phase and to end-of-life.

Despite the common perception that conducting an LCA is highly time and resource-intensive, when employed as a tool in product development, there is a some flexibility in how detailed you have to be. By executing LCAs in iterative loops that gradually increase in detail, resources can be allocated strategically. Technical know-how is key for enhancing the process and understanding where to allow for flexibility, ensuring a correct interpretation of results and defining actionable improvement measures.

Let's take the real-life Zühlke project example of a metal processing machine:

Initially, reviewing a comprehensive list of all parts, materials, and technical specifications simplified the early stages of conducting the life cycle assessment (LCA) and adjusting the level of granularity. It helped to quickly pinpoint the main areas of environmental impact, known as hotspots, throughout the full lifecycle of the product. These initial findings revealed critical elements such as the machine's material composition, the method of distributing the final product, and its energy consumption as an example. Based on these insights, the analysis was refined in subsequent stages, adjusting the approach and effort focus based on what has been learned. For instance, it might have been discovered that the machine’s steel parts have a significant impact, or that the nitrogen used during the cutting process is a key contributor in the ‘use’ phase. These insights could then guide further analysis, with additional focus placed on these hotspots to develop targeted strategies for reducing their environmental impact.

Eco-design discovery: explore and identify focus areas

After identifying the environmental hotspots, the next step involves exploring potential improvements for the product. For instance, in the above-mentioned case, significant hotspots included a high carbon footprint from the machine's gas consumption during operation and the materials used in its construction. Various scenarios specifically targeting these issues were assessed, such as selecting more sustainable materials, incorporating modularity into the design to facilitate refurbishment, and optimising the machine's operational efficiency. Through this process, numerous ideas were explored and compared, narrowing down to focus areas that offered the greatest environmental benefits for further detailed examination.

Some of these focus areas often address the sustainability hotspots within the traditional linear economic model, while others offer solutions aligned with the circular economy. This emerging field presents promising opportunities. It is therefore important to identify the implications of incorporating more circular business models on the company's ecosystem, internal capabilities and, ultimately, in the corresponding product design strategies.

"" Figure 2: Infograph comparing the linear and circular approach to sustainable product design

After the identification and refinement of these focus areas, other dimensions can be assessed beyond just the environmental view. This might involve looking at where the product stands in the market, how its functionalities relate to its environmental impact or the implementation costs. Such aspects are considered to ensure that the selected sustainability strategies are not only environmentally sound but also commercially viable and technically feasible.

In the example we provided above, from the detailed analysis of focus areas, effective solutions emerged. For example, a modular design for the machine to enable refurbishment, addressing the material used in the machine and gas consumption improvements. These solutions, evaluated for environmental impact, technical feasibility, economic viability, and market desirability, promise comprehensive benefits.

"" Figure 3: Venn diagram showing the 4 inter-connecting areas of a sustainable product design roadmap: environmental view, economic viability, market desirability, and technical feasibility
Adrian Fernandez Vazquez
' By adopting a sustainability-focused approach, companies can uncover and address inefficiencies, opening new opportunities for market differentiation and competitive advantage. '
Adrian Fernandez Vazquez
Expert Mechanics Engineer, Zühlke

Beyond the pilot: assess the integration outlook

Instead of immediately creating an action plan after the eco-design study, it is more strategic to develop a roadmap. This roadmap will help mature the identified strategies and solutions, preparing you for confident progression to the next stages.

Once the findings from the pilot eco-design study are available, they offer a glimpse into the potential of integrating sustainability considerations. Yet, these insights should not be confined to this singular study. Instead, they should be expanded beyond a single product to the entire product portfolio, evaluating broader implications and transferability. This ensures alignment with the company’s global sustainability goals and addresses any uncertainties.

Join us on the path to a sustainable future

Ready to make a tangible impact on your products and the planet? Go on your sustainability journey with us. Whether you're looking to conduct your first eco-design study or seeking to expand sustainability in products across your product portfolio, we're here to help. Join us in transforming sustainability opportunities into ongoing value for people, planet, and business.

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