From manufacturing to disposal, nearly every product made uses resources and generates waste. Waste means unnecessary cost. Therefore, any opportunity to cut waste saves money.
Many engineers often latch on to what seems to be a solution before appropriately defining a problem. This can be a big issue in product development, where design teams are often located in different silos and assigned narrowly scoped tasks. Engineers tend to get used to solving problems just by repeating techniques and following industry-standard practices. However, such limited approaches can sometimes make situations worse.
A more-effective, but less-familiar, approach is called “whole-systems thinking.” The well-researched method has been used for generations. The basic idea is to analyze and consider the way constituent parts of a system relate to one another, instead of merely focusing on the parts themselves.
The approach encourages engineers to look at design problems from multiple points of view. This provides a deeper understanding of the underlying problem, which, in turn, produces novel solutions that otherwise might never come to light. The key to the whole systems approach is identifying the right problems to solve, well before engineering begins.
The Rocky Mountain Institute
For decades, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Snowmass, Colo., has pushed this integrative approach to design. According to Lovins, designers can actually make a system less efficient even while making each of its parts more efficient. When parts are not designed to work together, they’ll tend to work against each another, he says.
To address this problem, RMI developed a method called “Factor 10 Engineering” (10xE), a set of principles that architects and engineers can use to slash energy use by a factor of 10 compared to baseline examples. Traditional measures rarely produce similar gains in energy efficiency. To encourage whole-systems thinking among new designers, RMI collects case histories of integrative design and lists learning resources for designers.
Often cited in RMI lore is how Atlanta, Ga.-based Interface Carpet’s Chief Engineer Jan Schilham went beyond traditional designs while upgrading the entire piping system of the company’s Shanghai factory. By considering the whole plant, rather than individual pipes, he discovered that large, straight pipes reduced friction so much that the facility could slash its energy use by 86%. Even though big pipes were expensive, their costs were recouped in only seven days because of higher efficiency. Large, straight pipes made it easier to optimize pipe layouts as well as avoid the traditional “spaghetti” of angled pipes and the resultant need for more pumping energy.
RMI’s Factor 10 engineering principles list ways to gain this kind of radical efficiency. There are a total of 17 principles. Here are a few:
Develop an integrative design process. Before starting a design, 10xE recommends rethinking the traditional engineering design process by incorporating aggressive shared goals and cross-disciplinary collaboration. That’s because many opportunities for efficiency are lost by the failure to understand or influence other stakeholders’ decisions. When a building’s engineers work closely with the architects, they may choose a completely different building form, for instance, by optimizing for the greatest access to passive energy.
Continually seek opportunities for measurable improvement. This principle reminds engineers to base design decisions on performance data, not on rules of thumb. It pushes engineers to design for radical simplicity by eliminating unnecessary components. For example, it challenges engineers to only use HVAC equipment as a last resort. RMI has racked up examples of buildings and plants that have entirely eliminated costly HVAC equipment.
Washers and dryers, and memory-card readers
Consider a typical washer-dryer setup: The two single-function machines consume up to a tenth of the energy used in a North American household. Most of the energy goes to drying clothes.
So how is this problem addressed using whole-systems thinking? First, consider that, in general, to optimize for environmental performance, it’s necessary to consider impacts through a product’s entire life cycle. For instance, the “use” phase of many appliances often has the most significant impact on the environment.
Washers and dryers also affect the environment while being manufactured, distributed, and disposed. Each of these stages might involve greenhouse-gas emissions, water pollution, air pollution, or toxins. Tools such as the Eco Materials Adviser function in Autodesk Inventor or Sustainable Minds, an on-demand, Web-based service, let designers estimate, evaluate, compare, and track design options to help identify where the greatest gains are found by comparing early results against a benchmark.
In the case of the dryer, reducing the energy consumed during its useful life offers the biggest opportunity for improvement — more so than raw material, waste, or any other factor. To cut energy use, an engineer might jump to the obvious solution of making the dryer’s heating system more efficient. But engineers have optimized dryers for years. In fact, dryer-heating mechanisms are already so efficient that any improvements are limited to incremental gains at best.
A better approach is to first look at the whole system. Here, the “system” is clothes getting dirty, being washed, and being dried. The wetter the clothes, the more energy they’ll take to dry. A washing machine with a more-effective spin cycle might use slightly more energy, but it lets the dryer save even more energy. The washer/dryer unit is, therefore, more sustainable because the washing machine was designed to use more energy.
Another good example of a redesign that led to a radical jump in efficiency was the SanDisk Ultra II SD card, developed by SanDisk Corp., Milpitas, Calif., and Lunar Design in San Francisco. Asked to improve a memory-card reader and create a separate product, Lunar developed the SanDisk ImageMate card reader.
Lunar began by benchmarking SanDisk’s previous card readers and making incremental improvements to each component. Engineers applied many sustainable-design strategies, such as decreasing product complexity, eliminating harmful chemicals, and reducing overall size. The result: The device slashes environmental impact through the product life cycle.
On a separate occasion, when asked more broadly to improve the experience of capturing and sharing images, Lunar again worked with SanDisk to develop a design that eliminated the need for a card reader and connector cable altogether. The final SD card has an integrated, hinged USB connector. The upshot: A popular digital media format (SD) combines with a popular connection standard (USB) in a product weighing only a few grams, all produced by engineering with an eye toward radical resource efficiency.