Let's say a certain wealthy entrepreneur has decided to launch an airline powered by algae-derived biofuels, and your firm has been picked to design green products for airport terminals -- more specifically chairs.
This imaginary scenario was cooked up as the premise for a recent SolidWorks Green Design Contest. Participants were challenged to design a chair that was aesthetically appealing and functional but had a small environmental footprint. More than being the avenue for a bunch of cool chair designs, the contest was SolidWorks' way of getting customers to dive into its nascent SolidWorks SustainabilityXpress environmental assessment tool, in addition to its SolidWorks SimulationXpress, a built-in FEA analysis tool.
"Product engineers don't typically get any education on environmental concerns and sustainability in their curriculum," said Asheen Phansey, SolidWorks' sustainability product manager and a contest judge. "They are taught FEA in school, and as we teach some of those concepts, we can reference what they know and show how our tool does something they're familiar with. With sustainability, no one can tell you what lifecycle assessment stands for."
Lifecycle assessment, in case you are wondering, is the fundamental concept of SustainabilityXpress. It provides a systematic and scientific way to look at all the environmental impacts throughout the lifecycle of a product, activity, or company. For engineers and designers looking at designing for sustainability, that means going far beyond evaluating material choices or minimizing parts. It includes actively examining all facets and stages of the lifecycle.
SustainabilityXpress can give engineers the lowdown on how a particular material was extracted, how a particular manufacturing and assembly process would fare, and the transportation requirements throughout a product's lifecycle, not to mention its disposal, Phansey explains.
This was all eye-opening stuff to Russell Donovan, a project engineer at Jackson Electrical and the winner of the Green Design contest. Donovan, who works on the design of temporary power distribution systems, regularly uses CAD and simulation software. But he had never used the SustainabilityXpress module, nor had he really paid any attention to environmental considerations as part of his design work.
Participating in the contest gave him an opportunity to learn about these new design considerations and to get his feet wet with the technology. Using SustainabilityXpress, Donovan designed a bamboo chair. His design took first prize for its "beautiful design," Phansey said, but also because his material choices stood out from those of other competitors, who used plastics, woods, and even light metals.
The SolidWorks SustainabilityXpress report on the "leaf chair" showed it weighed only eight kilograms, which was less than even some of the lightweight metal designs. It also ranked lower in terms of environmental factors related to transportation and end-of-life disposal. The chair turned out to have a negative carbon footprint.
Donovan says sustainability factors haven't been a huge consideration in his work up until now, but this exposure definitely has made him more aware of green factors -- a mindset that's likely to trickle into his day-to-day design work.
"I think this will carry over into my day job," he said in an interview. "I've seen how easy it is to use, and it keeps me mindful in terms of what's wasted."