Sea Solar Power Inc. has been chasing a green engineering dream for more than 30 years. Three generations of engineers in this family-run business have spent decades trying to turn the concept of sea thermal power into an economic reality by designing cost-efficient power plants that will provide an alternative energy source. Most recently, Sea Solar has been working to decrease the power source of the plant's main components, including the turbines, to streamline the process of harnessing the sun-warmed and colder waters of the ocean to generate electricity.
While Sea Solar may be on the cutting-edge of green design, its engineering practices harken back to the tried and true principles of its first-generation founder. Rather than requiring a systematic change of core design principles, designing products with sustainability in mind — be it a power plant or a hair dryer — simply demands a different mindset for engineers, one open to exploring new green possibilities just as they would any other design objective. "Designing something that's environmentally friendly doesn't change the laws of physics or the rules of engineering, it just changes the way you go about thinking about the problem," says Jim Anderson, vice president of Sea Solar Power, in Jacobus, PA. "For example, instead of looking at a component to optimize how to get the most power out of it, we're looking at that same component in terms of getting a certain amount of power more efficiently."
It's not just power plant companies like Sea Solar, which are hot on cooling their product's reliance on energy consumption — or hazardous materials, for that matter. Companies in industries from automotive to electronics and consumer product goods are jumping aboard the green bandwagon, pushing their engineering teams to factor in environmental concerns when designing new offerings. Some, like those in the medical device and electronics industries, are being driven by the need to comply with regulatory requirements like the European Union's Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE). Others, particularly those selling consumer goods, are increasingly bombarded with demands from customers who are seeking out more environmentally sensitive products, while others see green practices like reduction of materials as an opportunity to take cost out of the product development equation.
"A lot of the initial environmental initiatives were driven by compliance, but what you're seeing now, as illustrated by the recent Mattel toy recall, is companies needing to take a more responsible role in bringing products to market to meet a green or environmental stewardship," says a spokesman for UGS PLM Software. "Meeting consumers' demands for products that use less energy or don't harm people or the environment is really becoming a core design requirement."
All products have the potential to be designed with sustainability in mind, if engineers think about their product designs in a slightly different manner. From a materials standpoint, for example, engineers need to get into the practice of seeking out alternative materials that would make products easier to recycle or transport, or considering the minimal amount of materials that could be used without sacrificing stability or quality, according to Kishore Boyalakuntla, national technical manager for analysis products at SolidWorks Inc., a Concord, MA, maker of CAD software. Design for disassembly is another major initiative, requiring engineers to think about how a product is taken apart, either for repair or recycling, at the onset of the design. Conceptualizing products in a modular fashion is another way to promote reuse or recyclability; it allows a part to be replaced to upgrade its function as opposed to throwing away the goods at the end of their life cycle. Along with these, are more traditionally thought-of environmental design practices such as striving for minimal energy consumption, manufacturing without producing hazardous materials and using clean technologies whenever possible, Boyalakuntla explains.
"The majority of legacy products are designed by making minor improvements, changing some materials here and there and pushing them out the door," he says. "If companies do one thing, like take a look at how much materials they use, they can potentially shave up to 10 percent of those materials out, which is both a huge savings for the company and allows less material to be mined and less energy to be used."
Thankfully, CAD and PLM tools are evolving to help engineers achieve these new design objectives. PLM platforms like UGS Teamcenter and PTC's Windchill, among others, offer data management, program management and reporting functions that give engineers access to information on the materials makeup of parts early on in the design process to aid in compliance with directives like RoHS and WEEE. For example, Teamcenter's parts management capabilities have been expanded to provide engineers with such compliance-oriented information such as whether the part is recyclable or to flag any problem related to disposal so they can make more informed choices about parts selection early on in design. "The sourcing process is going from just negotiating around what parts cost or the delivery and quality requirements to what information is required by the supplier around compliance, delivered in a standard format," the UGS spokesman says.
On the CAD front, tools such as Dassault's CATIA, UGS NX, PTC ProEngineer and Solidworks all now include more sophisticated, built-in CAE analysis capabilities that can help engineers iterate more green design concepts and test them prior to creating prototypes. The whole concept of building a product using a 3D model, not just with 2D drawings, is also essential to the idea of sustainable design principles, maintains Simon Bosley, Inventor product manager at Autodesk Inc. "3D provides a foundation that lets you make calculations and do dynamic simulation so you can see what happens to a design when you change a lever or spring, use a smaller motor or reduce the size of a component," Bosley says. "If you don't create the digital prototype, then it's a hand calculation or guesswork and the days of guesswork are gone."
Having access to CAE functionality like finite element analysis (FEA) and thermal analysis in UGS SolidEdge is helping the Sea Solar Power engineering team optimize the turbine design much more quickly than if they had to build a new model for each iteration from the ground up, Anderson says. It's the same story for LeBaron Foundry Inc., a Brockton, MA, maker of manhole covers and municipal castings. Like many traditional manufacturers, LeBaron typically over-designed its product to ensure it was stable or didn't break in the field and thus found itself facing cost issues around over-performance, says Steve Clinch, president of the foundry.
Driven more by economic pressures than environmental concerns, LeBaron began to leverage SolidWorks' built-in COSMOS simulation tools to figure out where to take materials out of its product without degrading performance. LeBaron's engineering team would create a 3D model of a traditional manhole cover, then based on COSMOS' analysis of low-stress areas, begin carving away materials. As a result, LeBaron was able to reduce the weight of its manhole covers by as much as 25 percent and still find a comfortable margin of safety, while achieving close to a $500,000 savings in materials costs. An added plus: LeBaron got a jumpstart on going green. "What we've done is essentially taken material that was of no value to the customer and kept it from going out on the street," says Clinch.
Leveraging computing modeling and load testing also helped Big Toys, a manufacturer of play systems, make better choices when it came to sustainable materials. The company, which had traditionally marketed wooden playground equipment, needed, for marketing reasons, to expand its line with offerings built with alternative materials. While Big Toys' engineers had a corporate mandate to incorporate new materials, they were tasked with doing so without recreating playground designs from scratch. "The engineers had to change their mindset with how to incorporate new materials while keeping the look and feel of the new equipment as close to possible to what had always been," says Scott Ramsey, marketing manager at Big Toys, in Olympia, WA.
Using simulation capabilities in Autodesk Inventor, Big Toys was able to test a variety of alternative materials, eventually settling on a high-density polyethylene plastic for its roofs, decks and enclosures, not to mention, its use of reclaimed steel in its 6-inch diameter uprights, Ramsey says. "Our average platform is made from the equivalent of 1,000 milk jugs, which didn't end up in landfills," he says. Inventor and some other computer-aided manufacturing tools used to assist in plant flow and operations help to minimize the amount of waste. "Whatever waste is then recycled, be it steel or plastic," Ramsey says.
Just as it is at Big Toys, designing for recyclability and disassembly are increasingly important practices for engineers. Opting to use snapfit fasteners instead of screws or glue because they are easier to take apart at the end of a product's life cycle or deciding to go with a single kind of plastic as opposed to mixing materials so as not to impede recyclability are just some of the nuances engineers need to consider as part of a sustainable mindset. "It's now necessary to have design reviews and check lists around recyclability and to do life cycle analyses to see the environmental impact and energy usage of products," says Chad Hawkinson, vice president, product strategy, electronics, for PTC, in Needham, MA. "A lot of what we're talking about requires process change and a new mentality for getting engineers to consider life cycle costs as opposed to just BOM (Bill of Materials) or manufacturing costs."
Commuter Cars, maker of the Tango urban vehicle, has embraced the design for recyclability and disassembly principles from the get-go. The 39-inch wide, electric Tango, owned by such trendsetters as George Clooney, uses stainless-steel materials wherever possible, in part for durability and in part to ensure they can be easily recycled at the end of the Tango's life cycle (which Commuter Cars says is likely to be more than 50 years). "To the extent we can, all the stainless materials are separated by nuts and bolts so they can be easily detached at those points," says Rick Woodbury, president and founder of the Spokane, WA-based firm. "We also don't tie in the stainless materials with other materials so they can be recycled more easily."
Designing for modularity is another key directive. The Tango's electronics and dashboard have been designed so that when a new display or computer system becomes available, consumers will be able to swap out the outdated model and easily upgrade, Woodbury says. The SolidWorks CAD tool has helped Commuter Cars' engineers in that manner. "It enables our engineer to make parts easily and create modular designs without having to hand fit," Woodbury says. "They can see the whole model and how things fit together, which allows them to make the best use of space and make the car more modular."
While green may be top of mind at companies like Commuter Cars and Sea Solar Power, it's still a novel way of thinking for most engineers. Says PTC's Hawkinson: "It's only been recently that people are thinking about changing the way they design parts and assemblies so they're more environmentally compliant — not just from a chemical standpoint, but in terms of recyclability and an energy perspective. We're just starting to get key requirements from customers."
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