The beauty of SustainabilityXpress

31 July 2009

When you’re under pressure to cut costs,choosing materials which minimise the environmental impact of your designs may be low on your list of priorities. But a new design-led sustainability tool makes this easy, writes Al Dean

While your workhorse design system can already evaluate a product’s performance, there are also moves afoot to help minimise their environmental impact. The field of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is growing and there is a clear trend that sees these tools integrated within design.

The real power of the system comes into effect when it is used to find materials with similar characteristics but have less of an environmental impact

While other vendors - notably PTC and Autodesk - have started developments in this area, it is the fruits of a technology partnership between SolidWorks and PE International, a well known global expert in sustainability and materials science, that has kicked me into action this month. I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on this technology ever since the development team gave a sneak peek at SolidWorks World back in January and now the Sustainability tool has been made available on SolidWorks’ Labs website (

The PE International partnership with SolidWorks starts off with a part-only variant called SustainabilityXpress, with a fully fledged assembly analysis tool coming on stream later. The tools interrogate your part’s form, size, additional information such as material (if you haven’t got it set in the part file), and then offers up some options for manufacturing. For example, if your material is plastic you get injection moulded and extruded as options. Next up, it asks for geographic information - where your part is manufactured and where it will be used.

Once this first stage is complete SustainabilityXpress hooks into PE’s huge database and gives you all manner of information relating to environment issues. There are four or five pages of data on the environmental impact of sourcing the material, processing it, shipping it, using it and then disposing of it at the end of its life.

The key metrics relate to carbon footprint, energy consumed (over the complete lifecycle of the product), air acidification (which covers the emissions such as sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides) and water eutrophication (the contamination of water and the resultant damage to the surrounding ecology).

Starting off with this baseline material the real power of the system comes into effect when it is used to find alternative materials with similar characteristics (such as material class (alloys, plastics etc), density, thermal expansion, yield strength, elastic and shear moduli, tensile/yield strengths, Poissons ratio) but have less of an environmental impact.

All of this information is presented graphically to help make your decision and simulation tools can then be used to test the performance of these alternative materials. The whole process can be documented and distributed using an automatically generated report.

Tools like SustainabilityXpress should already be an essential part of the design process. In this day and age our moral duty to minimise the environmental impact of new products has never been greater, plus materials are becoming scarcer and governmental and international legislation tougher. Perhaps the biggest challenge though is getting designers and engineers to use them.

Particularly in the US, I’ve often heard the suggestion that scarcity of materials and resources is a myth - something that baffles me every time I hear it. For fear of patronising the engineers and designers reading this, the planet is not a renewable resource, it’s a finite closed system and if we continue down this path, things are going to start running out. But, putting the ignorance of certain individuals to one side for a minute, we are also faced with the problem of a tough economic climate, where there is pressure for designs to be driven by cost cutting exercises.

The beauty of SustainabilityXpress is that it can also help achieve this goal. It can bring to your attention alternative materials that are not only better for the environment but can also help save weight, manufacturing costs, and of course money.

While SustainabilityXpress doesn’t have the richness of a material selection tool such as CES Selector 2008 from Granta Design (, the fact that it is integrated into the design process is a major plus. For many years I’ve been waiting for the CAD vendors to make the logical connection between material selection and 3D-based design. SolidWorks SustainabilityXpress is the most design-integrated example of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) software I’ve seen. Let’s hope it’s the first of many.

Al Dean is Editor of DEVELOP3D Magazine. Working with SustainabilityXpress has been a life changing experience for him. He can now impress his mates down the pub, by explaining the meaning of eutrophication

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