SOLIDWORKS Sustainability: Why Engineers Need LCA Software
Design engineers face a considerable challenge—creating products for consumers who are thinking more critically about their environmental footprint than ever before.
It is simply not enough to plaster a “green” label on a washing machine because it is energy efficient. What if re-engineering it to reduce its energy consumption makes it require more valuable metals? Or incorporate hazardous materials?
This movement of thinking introduced the concept of life-cycle analysis (LCA), or analyzing a product’s environmental footprint from the beginning to the end of its life. When it was first coined in the early 1990s, administrative bodies like the International Organization for Standardization assigned industry experts to write the frameworks that define environmental impacts from an LCA perspective.
These sets of rules were provided as a guidance tool, but can you imagine a design engineer taking the time to comb through an enormous government document just to make one product sustainable? Thank goodness we have software to do that for us.
SOLIDWORKS Sustainability, which has been on the market since 2009, is an exemplary environmental evaluation tool that combines LCA with engineering design.
“A typical designer, without being a real analyst, can start and get an idea of their design’s impact on carbon footprint, air and water pollution, and energy consumption during manufacturing and product use,” said Eric Leafquist, senior product manager at SOLIDWORKS.
SOLIDWORKS Sustainability Is Not the First to Offer LCA
Computer models for LCA calculations have been developed for both scientific and engineering applications alike. The modeling software is required to base all of its calculations on an LCA database, which is updated regularly according to environmental standards.
Based on the publication titled “General requirements for LCA software tools” by N. Unger, P. Beigl and G. Wassermann, University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria.
The underlying LCA database is typically updated and maintained as a separate entity. The computer modeling software bases all of its calculations and processes on this, and offers a concise graphical representation of a product’s environmental impact throughout the stages of its life.
The following table from Ecoinvent displays some of the LCA software available for engineers today, and the organizations that support them.
|Typical LCA Software||LCA Providers and Supporting Databases|
|eBalance||IKE Environment Technology|
|EIME||Bureau Veritas CODDE|
Engineers have their pick of the litter when it comes to choosing their LCA tool. The challenge is finding the tool that is easily compatible with what they already use to design their products. SOLIDWORKS Sustainability is straightforward in that the LCA tool is built right into the design software.
“We’ve offered the Sustainability product in our portfolio since 2009. That’s when we first brought it out to the marketplace,” said Leafquist. “We were one of the first to have these capabilities inside of a mainstream type of CAD product.”
SOLIDWORKS Sustainability is built on GaBi Software, in which the LCA information is leveraged from Thinkstep, a database that Leafquist described as extremely comprehensive.
“If you were a company and you wanted to analyze your whole process, the way you do everything—from the cafeteria supplies your employees eat from, to the environment that they work in, to the manufacturing packaging for the raw materials that come into the factory, to the packaging going out the door—and this on top of the product inside of it. Thinkstep is involved in all of this,” Leafquist explained.
This information is overwhelming for one engineer to consider. SOLIDWORKS Sustainability, despite calculating numerous processes, is straightforward and simple and focused on the product under development.
A Walk-Through of SOLIDWORKS Sustainability
While SOLIDWORKS Sustainability is designed to analyze both full assemblies and individual parts, let’s start with a simple, single part demonstration. In this case, a basic 1-inch screw part was downloaded from the SOLIDWORKS library. At this stage, it is a virtual shape with no assigned materials.
A basic 1-inch screw part downloaded from the SOLIDWORKS library with no assigned materials.
SOLIDWORKS Sustainability is an evaluation tool, so it can be found in the “Evaluate” ribbon shown in the figure.
The Sustainability panel.
The SOLIDWORKS Sustainability panel is displayed next to the product design workspace, so the user can see how modifying the object will affect its environmental footprint.
The Material options.
One of the first inputs that users can enter into the software is the product’s material. These can range from natural rubber to titanium alloys. For demonstration purposes, the material chosen in this example was AISI 304 steel.
The Manufacturing options.
The available inputs for the Manufacturing stage include where the product will be produced, the product’s lifetime (selected in the example shown in the figure), the total electricity and gas it will consume, and how much of the product will be disposed in landfills. To aid the user at this stage, there are default entries based on the material chosen.
The Use options.
The general region where this product will be used is also selected.
The Transportation and End of Life options.
Next, users can input details for the product’s Transportation and End of Life (including what percentage is recycled, incinerated and sent to landfills). As with other inputs, there is a default setting to help the user who may not know the details of these selections.
The Environmental Impact of the product.
Once all the selections have been made, the environmental impact is presented in terms of:
- Carbon emissions (CO2)
- Total energy usage (MJ)
- Air acidification (SO4)
- Water eutrophication (PO4)
There is also a percentage that shows how the LCA impact of the designed product compares to the previous design. For example, the screw material was previously 1023 carbon steel sheet. After changing the material selection to AISI 304 steel, the environmental impact of the screw increased significantly.
The same part altered to show how such a change can affect its environmental impact.
For fun, I cut the screw in half to show how altering the product’s dimensions affects its overall environmental impact. As predicted, reducing the amount of materials by half reduces the environmental footprint by 50 percent.
Once every alteration has been completed, the results can be uploaded into a complete report. The user downloads this in a Word document and is able to edit the content as needed – like presenting it in a brochure.
The report content includes a more detailed layout of the type of environmental impact the product creates and from what stage of production.
A more comprehensive presentation of the results show that one screw consumes 38 g of CO2, 434 J of energy, 0.16 g of SO2 and 0.13 g of PO4.
What Are the Advantages of SOLIDWORKS Sustainability?
One of the advantages of SOLIDWORKS Sustainability is that it is fully integrated with all of the other evaluation tools that the software offers. For example, cost estimation, structural, thermal and kinematic analysis.
“A user can play with the materials, go back through and see how the design has been impacted. Is it strong enough? Is it weaker? Does it have to go through a structural review?” explained Leafquist. “Then we’ll go take a look at the cost, along with the cycle of the design and simulation review.”
The overall process is essentially tweaking your design and being able to see—almost immediately—how it affects the rest of your product’s characteristics, including environmental impact. This can make sustainability assessment an everyday product development activity for engineers.
“This notion that everything is based off the 3D CAD model and that you can do all these things in such an iterative way—it’s an important additional capability,” said Leafquist.
“[Companies] don’t buy sustainability just to use it by itself. In almost all cases, they use it because it complements the other tools that we have and it extends their own capability to differentiate themselves.”
To learn more about SOLIDWORKS Sustainability and other tools offered by SOLIDWORKS, visit its website.