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Sustainable Minds: Are Accurate and Early Lifecycle Assessments Truly Feasible?

Seems everyone is talking green products nowadays. But how can you tell if the talk is greenwashing or a product that is actually better for the environment? Up to this point, any effort to honestly make a product greener has been pure brute effort. However, new software applications and systems could enable engineers greater visibility into the eco-impact of their decisions. One such system is called Sustainable Minds (company website). I talked with Terry Swack, the CEO and President of Sustainable Minds (LinkedIn profile), to understand what the system can do.

Background

Sustainable Minds was started in late 2007. The product was first made available to users for test in 2009. The product was then commercially launched in November 2009 and will be releasing version 1.5 next month.

Capabilities Provided by Sustainable Minds

The Sustainable Minds system provides a deep and detailed Life Cycle Assessment (LCA, wikipedia entry) for products early in the concept or design phase based on design decisions and ‘what-if’ scenarios.

How does it work? As an engineer defines or makes decisions about a product, they enter this information into the LCA system. Based on choices that are selected, the system then fills out numerical values across 10 environmental and human health categories that are then metriced, measured and summed across the product. It is fairly comprehensive in its assessment. For example, as you define how a part might be manufactured, it tells you the amount of carbon that is produced for that manufacturing process. In another example, as you enter the electrical power needed for operation, it gets a metriced score. Also, if certain hazardous materials are used in the product, that also is taken into account in the product’s score. So as an engineer defines the products in the LCA system, he are getting continually aggregated score the environmental impact of the product.

A few other items of note is that the SM LCA system is a SaaS offering. That means that Sustainable Minds can continually update the environmental impact scores as material specs change or as new materials are added. Furthermore, the system can interact with other systems such as PLM, ERP or otherwise. That’s important as the LCA can be derived from information in those systems like the BOM, materials used and other characteristics.

Analysis and Commentary

So what’s my take on this system? Is it good? Bad? Before I get to that, I feel like I need to offer some history for perspective.

The whole concept of conducting a LCA to fully understand the environmental impact of a product is not new. It’s been around for some time. The problem has been that accurate LCAs have been reeaaally hard to complete. It usually takes an expert in the field of conducting LCAs to workusing extremely sophisticated software to get a comprehensive LCA. As a result, they are done infrequently and often at the end of a product development project.

Now the whole idea of performing an LCA as you design the product has been a dream for a while. Ideally, an engineer could generate multiple configurations of a product that represents design choices he could make and then compare the environmental impact of each one against each other. Getting that visibility into the impact of design decisions would be great. But given the complexity and time required to actually perform an LCA, it honestly wasn’t feasible. And an engineer certainly could try to retain the knowledge and skills to do it themselves, but as I’ve written before, engineers have responsibilities across the development cycle. They’re jack-of-all-trades and master of none. The same reason they can’t be CAD experts is the same reason they can’t be LCA experts. They simply don’t have the time.

Now there certainly have been and are solutions for assessing materials compliance in the development cycle. But that’s really focused on regulatory compliance related to product end of life issues. Basically, people don’t want hazardous materials leaching into the ground. But there haven’t been any LCA systems that are accessible to everyday engineers. That requires an easy to use interface that has knowledge embedded in the system. It has to lead the engineers by the hand to enable them to not only conduct an LCA but understand how to compare and contrast their design decisions as a result. Because that’s the end game here. Making the right choices to produce products with better environmental performance. I think that’s the powerful thing about SM LCA. It does all of those things in spades.

However, there is a fly in the ointment. Unless you integrate the SM LCA system with all of the other systems in your development cycle, you’ll need to duplicate the effort to input the product definition again here. For time strapped engineers, it would be good to be able to enter that definition once somewhere and have that definition propagated and consumed in every system, including the SM LCA system. Beyond the initial definition, as the product changes, the SM LCA system needs to keep pace. Manually propagating that change could introduce human errors in the assessment.

Summary and Conclusions

If you haven’t seen this theme in my posts before, here’s my take on software applications and systems for engineers. They must be easy-to-use and simple applications. Engineers don’t have time to learn any complex application. Furthermore, if the domain is complex, they need something to hold their hand through the issues. The Sustainable Minds promises to do both those things for a terribly complicated but necessary domain today. The only downside I see is duplicating the effort to initially define the product as well as propagate change between systems used in the development cycle. Something to keep in mind as you consider this solution.

So, with all that said, what do you think about this type of solution? Has anyone used this solution specifically? Weigh in with your thoughts and experiences. I’d love to hear them.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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  • http://twitter.com/alistardean al dean

    I couldn’t agree more. SM’s LCA tools are excellent, for both that early stage conceptualisation process and perhaps more interestingly for me, and for those not working on clean sheet designs, to evaluate changes to a next product iteration in terms of environmental benefit. The ability to load a reference/existing product, perform an LCA, then compare this to new concepts, is outstanding and rare.. There’s more and more work being done in this field and the tools are coming – perhaps the biggest challenge is one of education. Terry’s been evangelising this type of approach for year as have many others and it’s only now that we’re starting to see more widespread traction of LCA within the design process. Our data tells us environmental impact is a key concern for many in design and engineering – the gap has been the tools to back up that concern. But they’re coming.. Good news for everyone I think.

    Al, DEVELOP3D.

    • http://www.engineering-matters.com Chad Jackson

      Al, thanks for weighing in. Your perspective here is pretty valuable.

      I agree with you about the education aspect of this. I think most think that this stuff is simply too hard to even try and as a result, don’t try. That will be the biggest part to overcome.

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