For those involved in manufacturing and product development, this requires the ability to evaluate, manage and assess the environmental impact of the products produced. With research showing that around 80 per cent of a product’s carbon footprint is determined at the design stage, these evaluations need to be undertaken at the very beginning of the design process and not left until the end.

A way to avoid the creation of products that may have a negative impact on the environment is through the use of the LCA Calculator. This simple software tool – which stands for life cycle assessment – uses data from EcoInvent, a Swiss supplier of life cycle inventory (LCI) data, to help users analyse the effects that a product has on the environment over its entire life. Starting with the extraction and processing of raw materials, to the manufacturing, transport, packaging and marketing processes; LCA Calculator analyses the use, re-use and maintenance of the product and then the eventual recycling or disposal of the product as waste.

Industrial Design Consultancy (IDC), an independent product design consultancy based in the UK, created the LCA Calculator out of its own frustrations in developing sustainable products. “Most of our clients know that the move towards greener product design is inevitable and they want to be a part of it, but until now there has not been a simple tool to assess the environmental impact of a product,” says Stephen Knowles, managing director of IDC.

Traditional life cycle assessment programs require a lot of research, specialist knowledge and, of course, time. This meant that environmental impacts were being roughly estimated, if at all. “At the time, around five years ago – and it’s still largely the case today – the software that existed required a lot of training, investment and time to do the analysis. This means that the analysis gets in the way of the design process so the majority of companies either don’t do any analysis or do it afterwards when all the design decisions have been made,” says Knowles.

IDC went about developing a fast and user-friendly solution for life cycle analysis that incorporated a database of different materials and processes, which it licensed from EcoInvent, and launched a beta version around three years ago. The idea was that, as well as in-depth analysis of existing products, designers and engineers could quickly assess ‘what if’ scenarios and compare the environmental impact of various design decisions.

In the process of developing a more sophisticated version of the LCA Calculator, the consultancy was approached by Jaguar Land Rover, who was after just such a tool that could provide sustainability data about the way vehicles are powered and manufactured. For example, an engineer could select a vehicle model and engine type, and quickly assess or compare components based not only on emissions during manufacture, but the increase or decrease in emissions over the vehicle’s lifespan.

Following a trial with them and with additional feedback from users of the beta version, the LCA Calculator was officially launched in early 2012. “I think one of the biggest advantages of the tool is helping users make design decisions in order to develop better products. For instance, a designer may want to make a particular part out of recycled plastic but if it has such a small impact then spending weeks chasing around to find a supplier of recycled plastic for that small part is probably not a good use of time or money,” explains Knowles.

”Whereas finding alternative materials or processes for a bigger part may reduce the overall impact of the product much more dramatically. In so doing, it causes users to think of inventive solutions as to how they can use materials, how to ensure these materials don’t travel quite as far and how waste can be removed from the processes.”

Whereas, previously companies may have acted upon their own discretion to develop sustainable products, it is increasingly becoming mandatory with many products having to comply with new regulations and standards. For example, 2007 saw the introduction of the ‘International standard for environmentally conscious design of electronic medical equipment’ (IEC 60601-1-9). This directive made it optional for manufacturers to consider the environmental impacts of their devices throughout the product life cycle. But in the third edition of this directive, which came into force in the EU and Canada in 2012 and the US will follow on 1 July 2013, it is now obligatory.

“The requirement now is that manufacturers have to have some kind of log as to how they are going to reduce the environmental impact of their current product in the long term and also a plan of action for reducing impacts for the next generation of product. This can be quite difficult for companies if they haven’t any idea of the environmental impact of their existing product,” says Knowles.

Similarly, in other sectors and industries, it either is or will become mandatory. For example, from 2013 all companies listed on the London Stock Exchange will have to produce mandatory carbon reporting. In other words, they have to publicise any information relating to their sustainability performance.

A recent survey by professional services firm Grant Thornton UK entitled ‘Sustainable Businesses – Navigating towards a more sustainable future’ examined how enhanced sustainability reporting is influencing businesses. Within the survey the firm’s head of energy, environment and sustainability Nathan Goode, said: “Sustainability looks set to become a core element of the business model as regulations increase and the availability of resources presents new challenges. Organisations, both public and private, that are able to innovate and adopt sustainable practices should stand to gain an advantage in their marketplace.”

With the rules coming, it seems a pretty good time to invest in a tool like the LCA Calculator, which can be tailored and customised for specific industries and customers, whether automotive, industrial, packaging, retail or education.

“This is an exciting time for us as we have just received a Green Apple Award for Environmental Best Practice,” says Knowles. “Although it is a great honour and we are pleased that the tool is being internationally recognised, what is most exciting is that more and more people are now using the tool to make a positive impact on their businesses and the environment.”

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