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DfE: Minimising electronic waste

Posted: 22 Aug 2008     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Design-for-environment  environmental impact  electronic waste  energy requirements 

Gone are the days when design was just design. Today it's design-for-manufacturability, design-for-quality, design-for-cost, and yes, design-for-environment.

Design-for-environment (DfE) takes into account the environmental impact of a product from the time of its inception to the end of life, and then back into the resource pool for future products, typically referred to as cradle-to-cradle. It's a radical departure from the status quo, according to Pamela Gordon, lead consultant at Technology Forecasters Inc. (TFI) Environment, Alameda, California.

"Over the past 50 years," said Gordon, "we've moved to a disposable mentality for electronics. The benefits were quick and easy access to new technologies, but we had a buildup of electronic waste. Design-for-environment makes the product useful for many more years."

When looked at through a DfE lens, virtually every aspect of a product is affected, including the size, weight and energy requirements of the product. An important question to ask is, are there opportunities for reducing the number of components and consolidating components? This could save real estate, trim the bill of materials and the number of suppliers required.

The types of materials chosen for both the product and the packaging are also important. And by redesigning the product for ease of disassembly, reusable parts can be easily removed at end of life. For those parts that can't be reused, the design has to maximise the number that are recyclable so as to minimise waste going to landfill.

Once the product is designed, there are supply chain and logistics issues to consider, such as determining the manufacturing location to minimise the cost and carbon footprint. Another factor is how many miles all the components have to travel before they come together in the final product at the customer's location. One top-tier electronics OEM estimates that the carbon footprint of its supply chain is 20 times that of its own operations.

Seems like a lot to consider? It is, but virtually none of the DfE considerations are inconsistent with the cost or quality requirements of design. In fact, they can contribute in a positive way to both cost and quality.

Consider Xerox Corp., which has had a formal environmental commitment since 1991. By applying the principles of DfE to the design of the iGen3, a commercial printing system, Xerox dramatically improved the environmental impact of the product. More than 90 per cent of the parts and sub-systems within the machine are either recyclable or remanufacturable. And 80 per cent of the waste produced by the iGen3 is reusable, recyclable or returnable.

Besides Xerox, many other top-tier OEMs are engaged in DfE in one form or another: Hewlett-Packard, Apple, IBM and Intel all have DfE programs. But among midtier and smaller companies the rate of adoption has been slow, some say nonexistent. "I don't see companies dealing seriously with DfE," said Michael Kirschner, president of Design Chain Associates, a design consulting firm based in San Francisco. "There's no real incentive outside of the fear of Greenpeace."

TFI Environment's Gordon agrees. "Most electronics companies have only gone as far as compliance with [the European Union's environmental directives] ROHS and WEEE," she said. "DfE is like the quality movement of the 1980s; those slow to embrace the trend did less favourably than those that figured out it produced financial benefit."

There are a few exceptions, however. One is Blue Coat Systems, a high-growth maker of appliance-based solutions that enable IT organisations to optimise security and accelerate performance between users and applications across the enterprise WAN. A year ago, the company gathered a group of hardware engineers and product managers in a room for a DfE workshop and asked them to disassemble some products: Blue Coat products, competitors' products and a "benchmark" product that had applied DfE principles.

The exercise was an eye opener, according to Blue Coat's David Cox, vice president of operations. "We were pleasantly surprised by how well Blue Coat products measured up to the benchmark product, even though we had not consciously designed for ease of recyclability," said Cox. "The exercise made us realise that we had a great opportunity to integrate DfE into the next generation of our product."

Blue Coat created a cross-functional team to explore opportunities for DfE in a next-generation product. One design change they made was in power supplies. The current generation was using a power supply that was less than 80 per cent efficient. Blue Coat set a goal of more than 90 per cent efficiency.

The designers chose an open-frame power supply that was smaller and 50 per cent lighter, had better heat dissipation, and consumed less energy. Because of its smaller size, more units can be packaged in a container, which means lower CO2 emissions per unit during transport. For the next fiscal year, Blue Coat is focusing on environmental initiatives that will save the company in excess of Rs.4.29 crore ($1 million). "That's a conservative estimate," said Cox. "Employees really care about this," said Cox. "The beauty of it is that it's a no-brainer: You save the company money, you improve the customer experience and help the environment."

- Bruce Rayner
EE Times

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