Sustainable Minds LCA 1.1

05 March 2010

Al Dean begins a series of articles looking at the tools and trends for ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ design, starting with a review of a web-based service for lifecycle assessment

Product Sustainable Minds LCA 1.1
Company name Sustainable Minds
Price $700 per year

I don’t want to patronise you by stating the obvious, but sustainability in design, engineering and manufacturing is essential for the future of this planet. There’s a wealth of information about the subject on the web, and it can all get very confusing, sometimes contradictory, and almost impossible to condense into a paragraph, but here goes….

Sustainable Design is not only about minimising the environmental impact of a product in terms of the materials used to make it, but the impact of the product throughout its entire lifecycle, from the initial sourcing of raw materials, through processing, production, life and end of life.

Some companies have been practicing this philosophy for years but now:
a) there’s a renewed interest in it and
b) there’s an increasing demand for it, led both by the consumer and the legislative/regulatory world.
So how does one go about evaluating products under development when the design systems at hand are not equipped with the required tools and knowledge to do this? The good news is that there’s a rapidly burgeoning group of software developers focussing specifically on sustainability and providing lifecycle assessment (LCA) tools to those that require them.

One of the leaders of the pack is Sustainable Minds. Founded by Terry Swack a few years back, the company provides web-based, on-demand ecodesign and LCA software that can be used to investigate the environmental impact of both current products and future concepts. Sustainable Minds steps designers and engineers through each stage of a product’s life cycle to model new product concepts and understand what is causing potential environmental impacts and where in the lifecycle they are occurring.  It uses an easy-to-understand lifecycle assessment methodology that looks at ten environmental impact categories, including global warming.

The website has a Learning Centre which has a huge range of information and links to further reading, helping users understand the concepts and the best practices. And throughout the process the service offers up more information on the stage of the process that’s being working on.

The best way to explain how the system works is to step through a real world example, exploring how material choices, combined with component count reduction and redesign can affect environmental impact as well as cost. For this we have chosen a suspension system for a radio-controlled car.

After logging onto the service, the first step is to create a new project. This requires the usual name, description as well as other factors including the chosen industry sector. The next step is to define goals for the project, including environment policies and targets, and what you’re looking to achieve from the LCA project. At this point, the Functional Unit also needs to be decided upon.

The functional unit enables a comparison of the overall environmental performance of different product systems. Disparate products can be compared in terms of impacts per unit of delivered service. In the suspension system example, the functional unit is an hour of operation. The use of time is quite typical, but this can vary depending on the type of product.

Adding a reference concept

Once the general project data has been completed, the next stage is to define the concepts. There’s no such thing as a green product, it’s all about comparisons and creating a reference concept establishes the baseline. For high-level conceptualisation work this data might be quite vague, but for a redesign or next generation project, such as the example suspension system, this data should be easier to define.

The concept definition process has distinct stages and each is handled separately. The first is to define a concept name, description, upload a picture or a rendering and then add the total amount of service delivered. This is based on the functional unit multiplied by the lifetime of usage. For a disposable product, such as a plastic cup, the lifetime is a single unit, but this increases according to the expected lifespan. This can be based on customer survey data, on warranty expectations or simply a gut feeling.

SBOM definition

Building the Systems Bill of Materials (SBOM) is the core activity of the LCA process. It’s here that the user defines what the product will be made from, but also how it will be produced, how it will be transported, what it will consume when it will be used, and how it will be treated/disposed of at the end of its lifetime.

When working with an existing product, the easiest way of creating the reference concept is to import a Bill of Materials from a 3D product model. We tested with Autodesk Inventor, which has a streamlined workflow to Sustainable Minds LCA, but every CAD system will output a BOM as a spreadsheet and all the user needs to do is ensure that the correct fields are output. This includes part name, number, quantity, volume, material and a description.

The key values are the volume and the material and it’s from these that the system calculates the material usage. The Sustainable Minds website includes a BOM import template so it’s easy to customise a CAD system’s BOM output to match this. Simply export as a TSV (Tab Delimited file) and then upload it. This presents the BOM for inspection.

If all goes well, the systems can progress to the next stage, but any mismatches between the materials defined in the CAD system and those within the Sustainable Minds database are flagged up here. At present each ‘flagged’ material has to be edited individually, rather than a ‘replace all’, but this is coming in a future release. Either way, the basic BOM can be created in a reasonable time frame.

Once the parts and materials are in place, the next stage is to define the manufacturing process used to create the components. Again, this is done for each individual part and can be somewhat time-consuming so a little automation here would go a long way. The ability to add these additional references to an imported BOM (so it’s automatically imported) would be a real time saver.

Next up is to define any consumables used throughout the entire lifecycle of the product – for example, fuel, lubricant, water or energy. Details also need to be added about how the product is transported, either on a component by component basis or as a final assembled product. There are preset inputs for air, road, rail and sea freight and these are defined by the user in terms of mileage - something for which Google Earth is incredibly useful. This adds the lifecycle details to the product’s environmental impact model and rounds out the description. Once these are added, the reference model is complete and the results can be viewed. Sustainable Minds presents this in terms of total impact point scores per hour of operation (the functional unit). The user can look at other results views and get more detail and discover more about the carbon footprint of the design as well as at what stage in the product’s lifecycle the greatest impacts would occur.

Gauging impact

Once a reference concept is in place, the system can be used to find areas of improvement. It’s not often that designers get carte blanche on a redesign, so it’s important to know where improvements can be made, whether that’s in the form of component redesign for new processes, changes in materials or moving manufacturing to other regions.

Sustainable Minds allows the user to play with the data that’s been created, copy it to a new concept and experiment with it. In the case of material reassignment, these can be easily switched. In the suspension system example, some aluminium alloy components were swapped out for a less pure, recycled alloy. Two ABS components were also removed in the centre and re-built as a single component out of aluminium sheet, offering the same functionality. In terms of workflow, the component was redesigned in Inventor and the new Bill of Materials that reflected those changes (in terms of part count, material and volume), was uploaded as the basis for a new concept.


Sustainable Design or eco-design has been a hot topic for the last few years and this is only likely to get hotter. As governmental and lobby bodies (such as Greenpeace) rightly demand that manufacturers take responsibility for the products they produce, software like Sustainable Minds LCA is going to become an intrinsic part of the product development process.

As government bodies demand that manufacturers take responsibility for their products, this type of technology is going to become an intrinsic part of the product development process

The Sustainable Minds LCA is a simple, but effective product. It provides ready access to a wealth of LCA data, combines it with product knowledge and helps engineers better understand the impact design decisions can have on the environment. While the system would benefit from some areas of automation, the process is still relatively easy, but most importantly the results are rewarding: Rewarding in terms of giving clear information regarding the environmental impact of a product and providing users with enough flexibility to experiment. This can be in terms of materials, new product concepts and other factors such as location of manufacturing and transportation. If there’s one thing missing it’s the ability to build in cost evaluation, but this can be correlated with other data to help assess design and production decisions in a holistic manner.

There are many questions to consider when embarking on a sustainable design methodology. Is a component that has had its form and materials redesigned more beneficial than moving manufacturing locally? Can the need for a lower cost product be offset against the environmental impact of shifting manufacture to a more remote, but lower cost location? Can a product have a lesser environmental impact by making clever material choices, better design decisions or shifting manufacturing? Also, can competitive advantage be gained by providing a greener product whilst retaining profit and efficiency?

It’s only with a service like Sustainable Minds LCA that these types of questions can be answered - questions which are going to become even more important to the designers and engineers of the world as we truly take on board our responsibility to ourselves, our fellow inhabitants and to the planet as a whole.

It costs $700 per year to have a single user access to the service and to my mind, the knowledge and expertise built into it makes that a very reasonable price indeed, considering the potential benefits it can offer.

The methodology of environmental impact assessment

The current methodology on which Sustainable Minds LCA is based is called Okala 2009. This includes more than 550 impact factors from across all product lifecycle stages: materials, processes, use stage consumables, transportation and end of life. The updated 2010 methodology will be released in Q2.

Impact factors allow design teams to perform what-if comparisons based on 10 impact categories, or just global warming impacts, measured in CO2 equivalents.

Ecological damage covers global warming/carbon emissions, acid rain, eco-toxicity, ozone depletion, water eutrophication.

Human health damage covers photochemical smog, human respiratory, human toxicity, and human carcinogens. Resource depletion obviously covers fossil fuel usage.

The methodology uses TRACI [] impact categories developed by the US EPA, North American normalisation and weighting values developed by the EPA and NIST respectively, and process inventory data from worldwide sources. Extensive information about the methodology is available in the Learning Centre.

Sustainable Minds is continually adding new impact factors and takes new impact factor requests from customers through a link provided throughout the assessment process.


Comments on this article:

Thanks for you cnmoemt Tim! The better path is to indeed focus on ROI. However, even that path can come up short. What needs to be addressed -and what I do not feel has been addressed adequately yet, is project budgets and Owner commitment. For example, far too often I see RFP’s come in requesting LEED and/or other energy efficient attributes/technology. Then you read what the budget is, and based on the SF of the project, you realize that the overall budget for the building -and let’s say it is a mixed use development of retail and office space, as well as meeting space, is something like $150.00 a SF. Well, right there you realize the budget is off base absed on the LEED certification level listed in the RFP, and the Owner likely has little understanding of the integrated design process, or LEED. Does this $150.00 a SF account for certification fees, project registration, commissioning, building envelope upgrades and more? Unfortunately, usually the answer is no. I also see far too many studies advocating that green costs no more. When you download the study and read it, you find it was a 100 million dollar, 300,000 SF project -or, about $330.00 a SF. Well, you can do a lot with that kind of budget. And it’s not the budget most construction projects have.Sometimes I feel like I harp on this subject quite a bit. But I also feel it is irresponsible for the design and construction professions to claim that it costs no more to build green than it does to build conventionally. It is different in ways, and we must understand the differences so that when a project is in the early gestation period, these differences can be budgeted for properly. Then the ROI will really make sense.

Posted by Adiputra on Tuesday 28 2012 at 08:42 PM

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