A Beginner’s Guide to Designing for Sustainability

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You’re walking down the street, coffee in hand. The sun is out, the birds are chirping: what a beautiful day! As you turn the corner at the end of the block, you notice your path becomes obstructed by odds and ends—broken furniture, discarded consumer products, and debris. It’s garbage day, and all this stuff is headed for the landfill. You might attribute this situation to overconsumption or wastefulness, but it’s primarily a product of poor design. If we could design everyday objects (and systems) more thoughtfully, we can rewrite what it means to be sustainable and combat climate change. We don’t have an energy or pollution problem, we have a design problem. The environmental issues we face today are a byproduct of our own creation. Being more thoughtful about how we create products builds a more sustainable future.

This article challenges everyone to think more sustainably through a discussion of tools and strategies used throughout the product development process. Readers will feel empowered and have a basic understanding of how sustainability comes from simple, smart design. I’ll introduce the design methodologies and digital tools (generative design, latticing, simulation, nesting) that best support the creation of sustainable products. As well, I’ll discuss which peripheral environmental, supply chain, and manufacturing considerations are most important to ecofriendly prototyping and production. Readers will also gain insights into sustainability across multiple industries through resident feedback from the Autodesk Technology Centers.

Technology Center resident making use of a robotic cell.
Technology Center resident making use of a robotic cell.

Within the Autodesk Technology Centers, I work directly with researchers and industry, academic, and entrepreneurial communities to provide technical expertise and fabrication consultation. This global community creates a shared vision of the future of making.

The insights I have gained at Autodesk have resulted in a profound understanding of how sustainability can help you save money and successfully integrate into different stages of the product development process (ideation, exploration, fabrication, evaluation, and production). This Beginner’s Guide to Designing for Sustainability will break down and demystify barriers to entry within sustainability, whether you are a seasoned design veteran, freelance go-getter, recent industry addition, or corporate decision maker. I will introduce key concepts, tools, and tactics that will go beyond design for manufacturing fundamentals. Tools that you can start to put into practice today to join Autodesk in the journey towards smarter, greener product development.

An illustration of a typical product development process.
An illustration of a typical product development process.

Ideation and Design Philosophy

On average, 80% of a product’s environmental cost and performance is locked in at the design and conceptual phase, creating downstream impacts (EU Circular Economy Action Plan, 2020). While all roles involved in the development process are crucial in successfully minimizing a product’s carbon footprint, the industrial, product, and mechanical engineers should be targeted as they set the tone.

You’ve been tasked with creating a new product and have been handed a bunch of parameters which this design must fulfill. Naturally, early design iterations focus on the functional requirements of this product. Before painting yourself into a proverbial design corner, take a step back and assess the design challenge as a whole. What is the big picture? Having a strong understanding of the downstream effects of the design can help you better address the core product need, create something more sustainable, and better expose you to unconventional design inspiration. This includes how a product will exit its lifecycle and where it may end up beyond initial usage—for example, a landfill. Enter circularity and biomimics.

Tyson Fogel discusses circular design and why he believes it’s the next frontier for the manufacturing industry.

What Is Circularity

Circularity is the idea of keeping materials and products in perpetual use by eliminating waste and pollution by design. It’s different from upcycling or recycling in that materials and products can be repurposed to be of equal or lesser value at the end of their lifecycle.

An illustration comparing a traditional economy to a circular economy.
An illustration comparing a traditional economy to a circular economy.

What Is Biomimicry

Biomimicry is observing the natural world for design inspiration; for example, a formaldehyde-free wood glue whose design is inspired by the protein chemistry of a blue mussel’s byssus threads that allow it to adhere so effectively to rocks battered by waves. Mother nature has a billion-year head start in engineering cyclical, complex systems that are mission critical in its ability to sustain many forms of life. Unlocking them can be the key to successfully overcoming many of the design challenges we face.

Biomimicry can help designers create more sustainable products, as Tyson Fogel explains.

Where to Start

  • Start small and make it a priority—Set a tone for product development by introducing sustainable methodology early on. Choose one (high-consumption) aspect of your product and focus on making this as sustainable as possible. For example, if you consume a lot of energy during production, focus on this; if you use little energy, focus on materials. Slowly, through experience and failure, you will gain confidence in the process and expand this thinking to other areas of your product.
  • Lifecycle mentality—Always consider the different aspects of a product through to consumer usage (hardware, packaging, disposal, etc.). The emphasis here is on how to create long-term value in a product beyond its traditional lifecycle.
  • Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate—It is simple: fewer parts means less energy and material intensity, which leads to less waste. Recognizing where to consolidate can point you in the direction of which digital tools to use.

Exploration: Manufacturing Ecosystem and Vendor Considerations

Beyond form and function, the next logical progression when pursuing circularity concerns materiality, vendor selection, and manufacturing. In short, getting the part prototyped and produced. Gathering more information can lead to strategic and sustainable decision making. Get to know the people you are sourcing from to gauge how an organization conducts its operations, how they procure materials, and where these materials originate relative to your operation. Remember that not all manufacturing processes and materials are made equal. Being able to confirm an environmental declaration for a vendor’s materials, or their certification as a green business, positions you to understand the resulting carbon footprint, or minimize the impact of supply chain logistics. This is a sustainable best practice. Determine if your vendors operate in one of the ways listed below, each of which is somewhere on the spectrum of sustainable manufacturing:

  • Lean—As it implies, lean means “trimming the fat” or waste in a manufacturing process. Waste is any form of disorganization and inefficiency in the production chain. Basically, lean production means creating something with an uninterrupted flow in value-added steps.
  • One-piece flow—Product components are moved through the production pipeline and are processed one unit at a time. Cellular assembly can be advantageous to this form of manufacturing. Typically, one-piece flow lends itself to lean manufacturing.
  • Smart—Sensorization, Internet of Things, machine learning. The name of the game here is collecting data on your manufacturing processes. Data can lead to insights on how to produce things, better, faster, and more efficiently.

True sustainable manufacturing is at the intersection of these practices. This is helpful in better understanding where the values lie in your vendor relationships. To go even further with this early audit process, consider conducting a more complex lifecycle assessment (LCA).

What Is a Lifecycle Assessment

A lifecycle assessment is a quantitative method of measuring and evaluating all the material and energy inputs/outputs that impact a product throughout its entire lifecycle (e.g., raw materials, processing, transportation, usage, end of life, etc.). It is considered one of the most accurate methods of measuring a product’s environmental impact. Resulting data from an LCA is typically used to draw comparisons between alternative design and manufacturing approaches.

Historically, LCAs are costly and usually completed by third-party vendors due to their complexity, time, and resource intensity. These barriers to entry are compounded by the need for extensive databases and the challenge of extracting insight from the data you do collect.

Flow chart capturing the complexity of an LCA process.
Flow chart capturing the complexity of an LCA process.

Why Is an LCA important

Taking a step back, we know manufacturing operations are energy intensive, with one in five jobs tied to global supply chains, and over 80% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions coming from the supply chains of consumer-goods industries. Globally, manufacturers account for 19% of GHG emissions (Herzog, 2009) and 37% of energy consumption (International Energy Agency, 2013a).

An LCA gives you an opportunity to peer into the supply process and allows you to gauge a product’s net carbon output and embodied carbon levels prior to manufacturing. Embodied carbon is the locked-in amount of carbon emitted during the design, supply chain, and manufacturing phase. This is crucial in understanding and limiting (or eliminating) carbon hotspots within the product development process.

Where to Start

  • Do your homework—As described above, talk to your vendors, research their process, and ask them direct questions specific to materiality. For example, why does their quote deviate from market value?
  • Eco-friendly first—When sourcing new materials, hardware, and operational gear, attempt to research an ecofriendly option first. Regardless of whether your results turn up an effective option to meet your needs, find consolation in knowing you are doing your due diligence.
  • Track and self-audit—You don’t need to conduct a proper LCA to begin to understand your product’s carbon footprint. Leverage the data you can access in order to pull carbon insights such as machine run-times, shipping distances, material usage, assembly times; all of these things have an energy (carbon) signature. This will help you determine where concessions can be made within the production process and pinpoint components that could benefit from consolidation.

Digital Tools and Design Tactics

Up to this point, we have focused on strategies to employ prior to entering a CAD environment. Transitioning over, there are a number of tools you can leverage in your sustainable design-to-make workflow. Most importantly, success comes from having a profound understanding of your product and fabrication process prior to breaking the digital thread. This means running your designs through a finite element analysis (FEA), process simulations, or Autodesk generative design (GD). The idea is to look for opportunities to elevate your product through design for manufacturing (DFM) strategies, creativity, lightweighting, ribbing (or latticing), etc. My program of choice here is Fusion 360, which unlocks many of these key feature workspaces in a parametric and dynamic way.

What Is Fusion 360

Fusion 360 unifies digital design, engineering, and manufacturing into a single platform. Allowing you to streamline your design-to-make workflow and seamlessly transition across multiple workspaces, Fusion 360 puts design iteration and data in the hands of the user.

What Is Generative Design

Autodesk Generative Design is a workspace and design exploration technology native to Fusion 360 (with outcomes also bridging to Autodesk Inventor). Generative design uses an AI-based algorithm that creates multiple design solutions and permutations for one design challenge. This allows you to simultaneously generate multiple CAD-ready solutions based on real-world manufacturing constraints and product performance requirements.

Generative design is a powerful tool designers can use to consolidate assemblies, lightweight designs, and launch their creativity.

Why Are These Tools Important

Imagine data at your fingertips. All of these tools give you a real-time preview of how your design will physically react under certain conditions. The power of filtering through dozens of optimized GD options based on mass, cost, material, and manufacturing method (to name a few) means exported variations give you confidence in creativity and benchmarking the quality or performance of your product before you’ve even turned on a machine. When paired with FEA analysis, CAM, and other simulation tools, a user can determine where to further bolster or target areas of need within the design. Areas of need could be those that require further consolidation, lightweighting through ribbing, latticing, or critical features.

Generative design feature of the JPL Lander.
Generative design feature of the JPL Lander.

Where to Start

  • One-stop software—Your organization might have a CAD package, a manufacturing package, separate tools for simulation, a separate entity for managing teams project files, the list goes on. Streamline your workflow by targeting one software that can take you all the way to the machine. That way you can spend less time worrying about how to infuse sustainable best practice across processes and more time thinking about the results. Fusion 360 can get you there.
  • Simulate parts and processes—Simulation is a diagnostics tool to help a designer better understand a component’s integrity, performance, and structure in different environments and under varying conditions. A high majority of manufacturing complications stem from a lack of operator/designer foresight. The inability to project downstream pitfalls can cause error to compound incrementally to the point of failure. Simulation can give you this insight and the ability to adapt, improve, or address any inefficiencies.

A close-up of a simulated automotive bracket. Image courtesy of Briggs Automotive Company Ltd.
A close-up of a simulated automotive bracket. Image courtesy of Briggs Automotive Company Ltd.

  • Use data to combat trial and error—Maximize the capability of your design-to-make software, especially those simulation features that provide extended insight into how to make your product better, stronger, or more production-friendly. Tapping into resources like these can skyrocket your ability to design for a manufacturing process, effectively eliminating a prototyping trial-and-error approach.
  • Generate some designs—I can’t stress this enough: take advantage of generative design. Regardless of whether you think the design outcomes are too costly to manufacture or the studies too costly to compute, GD can be a hyperdynamic tool in your arsenal. Here are some of the ways I’ve seen it used:

1) A creative launch pad—Depending on your setup, the design outcomes can be alien-looking in nature. This can play to your advantage in crafting a truly unique design or trying to reimagine common structural features. For example, redesign a GD outcome to be more compatible with sheet metal fabrication or welding.

2) True manufacturability—Take the guess work out of your design for manufacturing strategies and produce results specific to the equipment you have on hand. For example, GD now has 2.5 axis constraints, optimal for subtractive manufacturing and ensuring all your design features can be met by both tooling and equipment limitations.

3) Validate, revise, and iterate—Consider GD as an extension of the iterative process. Use assumed or theoretical load conditions in your initial GD study, select your top results, then physically test these designs to gauge accuracy of calculated loads. Use the results of your tests to set up a second GD study and repeat.

An illustration of how generative design alters the traditional product development process.
An illustration of how generative design alters the traditional product development process.

Fabrication and Prototyping

Materials consumption in the United States is estimated to have grown by 57% between 1975 and 2000 (WRI, 2008). At the time, this equated to approximately 7 billion tons of solid industrial waste. Fast forward two decades, and imagine what that number is today.

The battle for sustainability doesn’t end at design for manufacturing. Production and prototyping are the most tactile and crucial of all phases. It stands to reason that how you transition to the machine can be critical in minimizing the number of failed prototypes, as failures contribute to an excess of material and energy consumption. Recognize and acknowledge the fact that you will have missteps during this process. Plan for them.

Why Is This Important

While part of this may feel counterintuitive, as prototyping is very much a trial-and-error process for fine tuning any design, reducing the number of iterations in this phase will aid in effectively breaking the loop within the product development process and encourage more thoughtful manufacturing.

Through a reflection on the many pitfalls I’ve witnessed throughout the fabrication process, I’ve noticed there are effectively three interconnected pillars that largely contribute to the ability of a manufacturing process to be sustainable: material consumption, energy consumption, and runtime.

Understanding that the energy used to make a product is approximately 20% of the production costs (McKinsey, 2012), it’s easy to see how actively altering or limiting one pillar would mean indirectly affecting another. These slight modifications could result in a reduction of failed prototypes or carbon emissions generated through the manufacturing process. Accommodating or adjusting for these pillars is done through preparation (these are factors we can control) to eliminate inefficiencies that can compound over time.

Where to Start

  • More data, more progress—We know data is king. Collect targeted information during fabrication to enhance the running performance of your part (run times, volumes, material waste, etc.). This includes understanding comparative processes (variations) within a preferred manufacturing method and selecting appropriately. For example, some 3D printers are more efficient at producing more complex geometries, while others are better at minimizing the run time of large assemblies or the amount of post-processing required and their ability to recycle material.
  • Material graduation—Do not run your initial prototype on your material of choice. I’ve seen more failures than I can count by individuals who were overly confident in their design. Use more recyclable materials in the beginning, working your way up to your material of choice. For example, laser cut an assembly first using carboard versus acrylic or wood, or using recyclable thermoplastics first when 3D printing.
  • Form, fit, and function—Not an uncommon approach, but worth repeating. Take your rapid prototypes to the next level by running scaled versions, or isolating critical features/sections, to iteratively test. These could include support removal, post-processing, mechanical joints, etc.

Support structure optimization on a generatively designed part within Netfabb.
Support structure optimization on a generatively designed part within Netfabb.

  • Additive for the win—The brilliance of additive manufacturing is that it is capable of using the smallest amount of raw material to produce a functional part. It’s never a bad idea to graduate your prototyping process either, starting with the more ecofriendly option first.
  • Manage parameters to reflect testing—Depending on the type of information you hope to receive from your prototype, ensure that the process parameters and setup reflect and prioritize this need (speed, quality, integrity of prototype). For example, if you are running a 3D printer to test both the form and function of a part, then you are probably most interested in speed of printing. Consider the following to reduce runtime and material usage:

1) Manage support structures—Evaluate the height and center of gravity of your supports based on part orientations; minimize the amount of area that needs to be supported (treat the support as part in and of itself).

2) Manage infills—Lower the infill density and maximize layer height; use the gradient lattice structure based on finite element analysis simulation results (Netfabb) or slice your parts directly in Fusion 360.

  • Nesting and packing—Optimally arrange your parts during a manufacturing process to enhance run-time and reduce the amount of material waste. Fusion 360 has a nesting workspace embedded in it for this very reason, giving you greater flexibility over how you run your waterjet, 2-axis, and laser cutting parts. Similarly, within additive manufacturing, Netfabb can properly position and orient geometry within a build environment using their packing features to minimize runtimes.
  • Workholding and fixtures—Design your work holding for disassembly. This will give you a degree of control over how you manufacture certain pieces (3D print less critical features) and allow you to switch out certain hardware/components that experience more wear and tear. Effectively this reduces the amount of production waste, while prolonging the usage of your trusty work holding.
  • Save the scraps—You never know when additional material will come in handy. When planning the construction of a new design, consider the items, scraps, and offcuts you have on hand or those that were produced from another component.

A generatively designed automotive part setup for post-operational milling using a 3D printed generatively designed workholding solution for a 5-axis CNC machine.
A generatively designed automotive part setup for post-operational milling using a 3D printed generatively designed workholding solution for a 5-axis CNC machine.

On the Horizon

The depletion of raw materials and resources is not a new issue, and it's not one that will go away anytime soon. If there is one takeaway: design for circularity is an added layer to the product development onion. Considering how a product exits its lifecycle is not optional; it’s a requirement that deserves equal weight and consideration in the design decision making process. Cost is perhaps the greatest barrier to adoption and arguably the common denominator or main inhibitor in our fight to overcome this obstacle. Curbing conventional design methodology, while targeting key areas to cut costs, can only be achieved through awareness and responsible design.

Illustration depicting how the circular economy exists at the intersection of design, sustainability, and manufacturing.
Illustration depicting how the circular economy exists at the intersection of design, sustainability, and manufacturing.

To expand, fundamental to my own design philosophy is challenging the status quo. I have noticed people often work, create, and design within the mental walls of those that came before us. Inside this proverbial box, they feel both constrained in their thinking and overly accepting of the physical world; that the known creative path is the only creative path. Designing for circularity reimagines what’s possible, breaking these walls down and saying, “we can do better.”

Reimagining what is possible and how to best inject sustainability into the design-to-make process is very much what we are trying to uncover at the Autodesk Technology Centers. We lean on the diversity of mind and experience of our global (resident) community to bring insight and to build a better future. If you are interested in joining this community or seeing a demo on some of these concepts described above, I recommend checking out some of my Autodesk University classes, including Additive Manufacturing: Understanding and Applying Key Design Considerations and How Sustainability and Fusion 360 Can Help You Save Money and the Planet. You can also visit the Autodesk Technology Centers website.

Technology Centers

Inspired by circularity and biomimicry, Tyson Fogel is an avid maker and sustainability advocate. He works directly with residents, innovation communities, and researchers to provide technical expertise and fabrication consultation through the Autodesk Outsight Network. A designer and cabinet maker by trade, Tyson’s past work includes everything from additive and subtractive manufacturing and woodworking to CAD/CAM, generative design, construction and—more recently—robotics. Prior to Autodesk, Tyson worked at the University of Toronto as a Technician in their woodshop and at Ryerson University developing programs to support social entrepreneurs.