Alcoa Makes DFMA Case for Aluminum's Sustainability

Green design is a pretty fuzzy concept. Everybody defines it differently. And if you can find a set of definitions you like, how do you efficiently include the concept of green into your design process?

The Alcoa Technical Center in southwestern Pennsylvania launched an investigation to find out. Its interest wasn't primarily to improve its own design process. Alcoa makes aluminum shapes from bauxite and other raw materials. Its goal was to find a tool that would convince OEM design engineers that aluminum is a better choice than other materials such as steel or plastics.

Researchers studied several tools, and the findings were reviewed by Stephen B. Leonard, Alcoa's Design and Innovation Practice Leader, at the 2011 International Forum on Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) held in Wakefield, R.I., last month.

One example is SolidWorks Sustainability, a module that addresses environmental impact factors (air, carbon, energy, and water), and provides a basic assessment of transportation and manufacturing impacts.

"The trade-off with this approach is that the concepts need to be designed in the CAD system in order to assess the environmental impact," Leonard wrote in his paper. "Secondly, these designs need to have some level of robust manufacturing detail included (e.g., what type of process, what type of material). This forces a designer to make a decision on a material and process to design in CAD before getting an assessment on the relative impacts of the materials."

A company called Sustainable Minds offers a lifecycle assessment (LCA) tool that analyzes a product's bill of materials (BOM) at the early design stage. It's based on the "Tool for Reduction and Assessment of Chemical and other Environmental Impacts" standard, which was developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency for front-end LCA assessment.

Leonard's take: "The tool is useful for products already designed and categorized in a BOM, and can be an excellent complementary process to other environmental assessment methodologies."

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