Green Noise vs Signal

28 November 2008

The economy is screwed but it’s the environment that should be our long term concern – it’s our future or lack thereof. Al Dean looks at how it’s being used, maybe abused, and how green issues link to software use.

Sustainability. Green. Design for the Environment. Big subject isn’t it? One that is on everyone’s lips, mind and drawing boards. The fact is we’ve been running the planet into the ground for decades, if not centuries, and our careless, destructive past is catching up with us and catching up fast.

The environmental debate takes in all types of people and positions. There are the green activists as well as the green sceptics. There are those that say things can be improved if we act now (and who’d have thought it would be Al Gore) and those that say we’re all doomed whatever happens. So what’s any of this got to do with 3D technologies? The answer is: plenty. If you look at a lot of the environmental problems we face, then the product development community has had a big hand in the current state of affairs. New products get churned out every year to create more revenue, whether the product family, or consumers, actually need it. 

…without formal answers to even the most basic of questions, how can the design community start to take advantage of the tools they have at hand?

This is something that we explore in two articles this month, with Allan Cochinov, chief editor of Core77.com, putting forth his manifesto for sustainable design, and Stephen Holmes talks to the team behind a chair that manages to look pretty damned slick while making the most of material that would have become landfill.

The latter came about after SolidWorks issued a press release about its design. As part of that press release, I noticed a quote from SolidWorks that reads, “By combining quality, style, and affordability with low carbon footprint, the Reee chair project demonstrates that sustainable design also makes good business sense.” The phrase ‘low carbon footprint’ leapt out at me as the perfect example of what I want to discuss in this month’s comment.

The Reee Chair is an incredible product. The idea that the team tracked down a single source but second-use recycled material to produce a fantastic piece of work deserves real appreciation and I take off my hat to them without equivocation. It’s manufactured from plastics already used in a product that’s been shipped all over the world, been through one lifecycle and is now on its second life.

There are many definitions of carbon footprint, but the overriding theme is that it’s a calculation of the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by a human activity or accumulated over the entire lifecycle of a product.

Essentially, you track everything from the mineral extraction through refinement, shipping, production, in use and after life decommissioning and disposal. Now, the plastics used in the REEE chair are good for the environment as they are recycled, but do they have a low carbon footprint? I suspect they don’t – others might argue.

But then this is half of the problem.  If none of the available information on product design and sustainability is fixed, very little is defined, nothing is decided upon and without formal answers to even the most basic of questions, how can the design community start to take advantage of the tools they have at hand? Perhaps it is time to sit and cut through the hyperbole, through the noise and to make decisions about the products we design, produce and sell. Gather some data and start to use it as part of the product development process.

This is why I was so keen to run Allan’s Manifesto for Sustainability. I’m a huge fan of core77.com and have even contributed a little over the years. To see someone take a stand and start a discussion of the new rules for design in this eco-conscious environment, takes a brave soul. More than that; read the words and it makes sense, perfect sense.

What we don’t need, but I suspect is already too late, is for green issues to become the next bandwagon, the next big thing. We can’t afford for people to misconstrue the meaning of critical aspects, measures and factors. There has to be some clarity to what’s going on. Only then can we start to build on that solid foundation of knowledge, rather than guess work and misunderstanding.

A good example of this lack of information is the Sustainable Materials Assistant for Inventor, which Autodesk released onto its Labs web-site a little while ago. The plug-in claims to help “manufacturers make more responsible material choices that can reduce their product’s environmental impact.” In reality, it extended the library database within Inventor to include toxicity, carbon footprint and recyclability among other things. It allows users to extract reports on parts and assemblies, but one thing is missing – the values that go into those fields.

To solve this, Autodesk has signed up with Sustainable Minds, an outfit that is developing a set of web-based software that does exactly that; fill in that information that’s very hard to obtain. The good news is that Sustainable Minds also has partnerships with SolidWorks and PTC as well and I’m sure others are knocking at its door. The company’s offering is due to launch into Beta at some point very soon, so stay tuned – in fact, I’d recommend subscribing to their updates and a mooch around the web-site, there’s a lot of interesting information there.

Sustainability is a big word (capital B, capital I and G) and one that’s not going to go away, but if we are to make a difference, there has to be more understanding of what’s involved, less hyperbole and more effort concentrated on making useful, live and up to date information available to the design community, rather than just trot out a well-worn phrase because it sounds hip. You dig?

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