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Addressing concerns with design-for-environment

Posted: 17 Jun 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:supply chain  design-for-environment  OEM 

Every decision that an engineer or designer makes in developing a product has extensive implications for the end-customer, of course, but also for the supply chain and for the environment. Making smart design decisions up front has the potential to reduce waste throughout the supply chain, ensure adherence to regulatory demands, and make the end-product more recyclable and longer-lived.

For the designer, designing for the full life of the product becomes a balancing act. A variety of factors, including manufacturability, costs, durability, recyclability, and user experience, must each be considered and weighed.

"Especially in electronics, the supply chain is very messy and very complex," said Carole Mars, research manager for the electronics, toys, general merchandise, and home and personal care sectors for the Used Electronics Management Innovation Workgroup at The Sustainability Consortium.

A number of realities in the electronics industry add to the difficulty in addressing design-for-environment questions. "Electronic parts are being miniaturised, and the more miniaturised they are the harder it is to take the product apart and recycle it," said Wayne Rifer, director of research and solutions for the Green Electronics Council. "In addition, products are being manufactured with more types of material in them."

Further, the complexity and breadth of the supply chain can get in the way of understanding the full implications of design choices. "The first challenge is understanding the supply chain beyond first-tier suppliers," said Karl R. Haapala, assistant professor at the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Oregon State University. "There is a lot of opacity around what's happening beyond that point," Haapala added. "OEMs should work to know where materials come from, what processes have been used in making them, and even the workforce that is being used."

Open lines of communication can lead to better and smarter product design decisions. Contract manufacturers and electronics distributors are working to do their part by providing free information on how to design in an eco-friendly way with different parts.

"Companies like Avnet, Arrow, Mouser and Future Electronics are putting together better design guides, and a bunch of contract manufacturers, including Jabil and Flextronics, are doing the same thing for developers," said William Lumpkins, chair of the 1874P Standards Working Group at the IEEE. "By working together, everyone saves a lot of money and hassle."

As a first step, it's critical to consider the full life cycle of the product when creating a new design. "The funny thing about this is that it's not a new idea," said Lumpkins. "Now, though, OEMs are realising that everyone will save money. It's starting to come together and there's a convergence."

In designing for the environment, it's important to think carefully about how to use materials more efficiently. "There's a lot of environmental impact that can be traced back to the types and amounts of materials being used," said Haapala. "We have to figure out how to design to do more with less, essentially, and that's a big challenge."

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