Leonard's team moved on to Boothroyd & Dewhurt's DFMA software, which includes an environmental module. The module "provided the type of data to adequately evaluate the merits of an assortment of product concepts from an environmental assessment perspective." DFMA also allows environmental analysis while a design is in process.
Leonard did not mention other commercial software options that are available, such as Eco Materials Adviser (EMA), which is currently provided free as part of Autodesk Inventor 2012.
Leonard's team selected a laptop computer (no brand or model data provided) for a case study in a pilot. DFMA provided them with a good sales pitch for aluminum as a replacement for molded plastic and other materials.
For example a switch to aluminum for shrouds, covers, and other parts in the laptop resulted in:
- Increased recyclable material from 22 percent to 46 percent
- Reduced land-filled parts from 28 percent to 5 percent
- Reduced part count by 40 percent
- Reduced assembly time 25 percent
- Reduced cost for structural components 20 percent
This is good stuff, and there is no question that aluminum is a good materials choice from a sustainability perspective. But the guts of the analysis weren't divulged, and I still have to wonder how fair the analysis is.
For example, it's generally easier to design complex shapes in a molded plastic that combines functions than it is to do the same in aluminum. Maybe I'm wrong. I phoned Stephen Leonard to discuss, but he wasn't available. Did the design analysis also consider use of sophisticated new fasteners that double as heat sinks?
And the definition of recyclability is also difficult and puzzling. Dare to say out loud that a material is not recyclable in the past 10 years, and the suppliers would quickly point out that their materials are recyclable -- even thermosets filled with 60 percent glass. Thermoplastics are more easily recyclable. But realistically: Is anyone really recycling plastics or aluminum from cast-off laptops? I know that they are collected and sent to safe disposal facilities. But what happens next has been a source of controversy.
So is the Alcoa project just a marketing gimmick, or a real advance in technology of interest to design engineers at large? Maybe some of both.