Digitally Enhanced | Green Choices, on the Fly

Recently developed software promises to provide industrial designers with a powerful new tool for materials evaluation.

Paper or plastic? The layers of complexity behind a seemingly simple choice of material confront us daily at the supermarket checkout: forget your own reusable carrier, and your choice is between the high energy, waste, and emissions impact of a paper bag, or the nonrenewable resource of a petroleum-based bag. For product designers already wrangling with the cost, performance, durability, weight, and safety implications of their decisions, the additional calculation of a design’s environmental impact can be overwhelming. As materials and process directives become more prevalent and stringent, designers often need a materials engineer and environmental scientist on hand—or at least a usable evaluation tool.

Autodesk’s new Eco Materials Adviser aims to address this problem by putting an environmental scientist’s brain into a CAD program, so that the environmental and economic cost of every materials choice is immediately run through its artificial eco-intelligence. For the CAD user, pertinent information pops up as a set of panels within Autodesk’s Inventor software, to provide on-the-fly feedback as a design is being modeled. Using the tool, designers and engineers can estimate a project’s carbon footprint, embedded energy, water usage, raw-materials cost, and compliance with legislative standards. In short, the software provides product designers with the equivalent of the architecture profession’s Building Information Modeling (BIM) system.

Eco Materials Adviser came about as a result of a partnership between Autodesk and Granta Design, the UK-based materials engineering consultancy formed by Cambridge University professors in 1994. Granta launched a cloud-based proprietary database of materials and, in 2008, introduced Eco Audit, a tool for manufacturers to estimate energy and carbon impacts during the early stages of a product’s development. The tool and database were made commercially available and licensed to a number of software developers, but according to Granta’s product manager for eco design, Jamie O’Hare, the company eventually came to the realization that, “information would be most effective and useful for designers if it was available in the CAD environment. So we teamed up with Autodesk. They had great tools in the architecture and civil-engineering area to help with sustainable design, and they were really looking to extend that capability into manufacturing.”

Despite its worthy-sounding name and rationale—Autodesk’s product manager for sustainable manufacturing, Sarah Krasley, says her personal aim is to “democratize sustainable design”—an important economic drive lies behind Eco Materials Adviser. European and Japanese regulations have set legislative materials standards that are difficult to ignore for any manufacturer with global aspirations. Substituting for a newly outlawed material can cost manufacturers millions of dollars in tooling, analysis, and re-qualifying the replacement part. At the most basic level, designers are going to need a better understanding of the implications of their materials choices—or risk disaster. “A large consumer electronics company told me that the cost of substituting a material for an in-service product—due to changes in restricted substance legislation, for example—is five to fifty million dollars,” O’Hare says.

It’s not as though no one had thought of building environmental impact tools into software before. Prior to the arrival of integrated CAD tools like Eco Materials Adviser, design firms would typically use Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tools and services. A full-blown LCA analysis can evaluate thousands of manufacturing processes, and uses dozens of metrics to measure a design, including social impact. As Jorgen Vos, product manager at Parametric Technology Corporation (the makers of the ubiquitous Pro/Engineer CAD tool), recently noted in a podcast on the topic, “Most users of our data are overwhelmed if you show them all that stuff.” Krasley says that in surveys, designers and engineers have admitted as much. “LCA immediately alienated them, as it’s such a scientific approach,” Krasley says. “It took them a lot of time to dig out the data to fill out the forms. Many didn’t know how materials travel, or they worked for companies that outsourced their manufacturing, so the information wasn’t available.”

Several companies have tried to provide a more accessible interface for LCA tools. SolidWorks’ Sustainability, for example, offers on-the-fly environmental impact analysis within the CAD program by using global consultancy PE International’s GaBi software and materials-and-processes database. The benefit of Autodesk’s product, according to Cecilia Rios Velasco, an industrial designer whose thesis research compared varying environmental impact tools, is that it enables designers to quickly check materials substitutions against raw-materials cost. “I think Autodesk realized that money is an important factor in whether or not people choose a ‘greener’ material, and making it part of their analysis was a smart move.”

The cloud-based setup of the Autodesk product also ensures that a design team’s materials information is up-to-date and consistent, which helps prevent a certain kind of design complacency or cautiousness. “Quite often, we find that designers have their black book of materials and bits of information, old handbooks of materials, random sheets that have been photocopied, or they go online and Google ‘ABS mechanical properties,’” O’Hare says. “The challenge of getting good materials information together tends to encourage some inertia when it comes to choosing materials. Designers are potentially missing out on opportunities in sustainable design and in general, functional performance.”

The danger, of course, is that users will think that simply satisfying the software is equivalent to achieving sustainable design. Steve Bishop, IDEO’s global lead of environmental impact, argues that the design decisions with the greatest impact happen early, at the ideation stage of the project, before resources and time are committed. “Instead of ‘How are we going to make this toaster more sustainable or reduce its impact,’ we need to ask the question ‘How do we find a more sustainable way of heating bread?’” Examples abound in the food industry, where, despite profligate waste in food packaging materials, the greatest environmental impact is made by the production of the food inside the plastic.

The problem is that designers aren’t always in a position to rewrite their clients’ briefs; numbers generally speak louder than words. Sustainable Minds cofounder and CEO Terry Swack, a designer-turned-environmental entrepreneur, who has an ongoing partnership with Autodesk, sees a place for metrics-based tools at all stages of development. Her company’s LCA software is designed to encourage comparisons between different early-stage design concepts. Noting that there is no such thing as a green product, only greener products (all products use energy and create waste), Swack argues that the need for reliable data is paramount. “Every tool vendor doing anything to enable its customers to start learning about sustainability in a credible way is doing the right thing.”

A CAD-based eco plug-in can bring good data to the desktop, make it prominent, and allow its users to prove to clients that their products are compliant. The software allows designers to quickly identify materials that meet international standards, which have become something of a moving target in recent years. In the European Union, there are new restrictions on flame retardants, and lead, mercury, chrome, and cadmium joined the EU’s 2006 restricted substances list for cars and consumer electronics. Since most manufacturers are looking to make their products available globally, designing to the highest standards of compliance is considered a best practice.

A question remains: does a simpler, accessible environmental-impact tool come at the cost of accuracy? Eco Materials Adviser’s graphical user interface was designed to enable non-experts in sustainability to make what Krasley calls “back-of-the-napkin comparisons: is this material better than this one?” The interface is intended to blend with the existing Inventor color palette and visual hierarchy, where the CAD model is considered the most important part of the screen. Users open the plug-in by selecting Analyze from the start screen, and once the system has evaluated the digital prototype, they can zoom in on details such as water use, carbon footprint, and raw-materials cost. A baseline requirement can be set in a pull-down dashboard menu: Heavy impact is indicated by red bars moving to the right of a zero-percent line; positive impact is indicated by green bars moving to the left. “The idea was to keep it simple,” says O’Hare. “Everyone loves pie charts, but the experts say they’re not great, because it’s hard to quickly see which takes up the biggest part.”

The base version of Eco Materials Adviser ships free with every Inventor package. Users can upgrade for a fee. The base version provides only a “representative sample” of 50 materials, as opposed to about 3,000 materials in the full version. If the intended use of a product is transportation, for example, a bioplastic that’s low in carbon dioxide production might not be a good choice. Bioplastics can be relatively heavy, and reducing overall mass reduces energy cost over a vehicle’s lifespan. “Without that information in the base version, you might come to a different conclusion,” says O’Hare, “but the base version does give you an idea of impacts and how to make improvements.”

No software is a neutral tool, and the metrics built into Eco Materials Adviser are an interesting barometer of industry’s current priorities. Alongside the ecological criteria and cost assessments are compliance flags for the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, and for food-grade materials. An end-of-life metric is also built into the software, to provide feedback about a material’s recyclability, but currently, it cannot be used for information on assemblies—only for parts. In other words, a product carefully designed for disassembly and closed-loop recycling will score no better than one incorporating complex or injection-molded assemblies that are difficult or impossible to recycle. “If people want to look at design for disassembly, that’s a functionality we’ll consider for future releases,” O’Hare says.

That said, the fact that sustainability metrics have been baked into one of the most ubiquitous 3-D design tools is a sign of a sea change. Even global warming skeptics can’t help but notice a tool that makes cost and compliance considerations visible and usable. And as Rios Velasco puts it, “It’s going to make designers more aware of the decisions they’re making. It used to be that you first meet economic requirements, then do environmental performance. With this, you can control both at the same time.” If software is a demand-driven business, Autodesk’s innovation is a welcome sign that America’s manufacturing industry is beginning to take environmental performance seriously.


Recent Programs