Sustainability has long been high on the agenda of idealists. But it’s only a matter of time before it becomes a requirement for all machines and systems. Jeroen Rondeel of Blue Engineering is firmly convinced of that. A crucial task is reserved for developers. Involved in the training “Design for sustainability,” Rondeel explains how you can make a world of difference with just a few simple tools.
Ecologically, the corona crisis is also having some positive consequences. After all, the restrictive measures affect our mobility. Fewer cars on the road mean fewer traffic jams and thus fewer exhaust fumes. On a global level, you can see the effects in Earth Overshoot Day, for example. That’s the day each year on which we’ve all used more raw materials and nutrients than the earth can produce in that year. For decades, it has been steadily moving up the calendar. In 2020, however, Earth Overshoot Day jumped back about three weeks, to 22 August.
Great news, of course, but there are still more than four months left that exceed the restorative capacity of the earth. Environmental agreements such as the 2015 Paris Accord are trying to reverse the trend. “The world is waking up and we as technicians are at the base of that change,” says Jeroen Rondeel, director of engineering firm Blue Engineering. “In fact, we can make a huge contribution to reducing the footprint by continuously focusing on sustainability in designs. From architect to engineer, everyone can take responsibility. Sometimes it just takes some guts.”
Rondeel himself saw the light when he attended a meeting in the run-up to the 2012 Floriade in Venlo. Among other things, he heard the call from Gunter Pauli, author of “The blue economy.” “His message was that we’re not treating the earth very well – that’s red,” Rondeel explains. “An alternative is the green circuit, which takes us a step back in our level of prosperity. Or we go for blue and do it radically differently. Inspired by nature, driven by technology. ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘I can also contribute to a better world.’”
A few years later, Rondeel took the plunge and founded Blue Engineering. Initially with a secondment formula, but the company at the Blue Innovation Campus in Venlo is attracting more and more farm-out projects and complete product developments. In that respect, Blue Engineering can be compared to parties such as NTS, VDL ETG and Sioux CCM. “But then with a strong sustainability drive,” Rondeel emphasizes. “Every day, we try to implement blue ideas and convert innovations into blue realizations.” At present, Blue Engineering derives about 30 percent of its turnover from blue projects; the rest is more traditional product development work.
For example, Blue Engineering developed a product of its own, on which it also obtained a patent. “It started with an idea from professor Guus Pemen from Eindhoven University of Technology,” says Rondeel. “We use plasma to reduce the odors and other emissions in a pigsty.” Normally, this is an application that uses a lot of chemical agents. “Plasma has a cleansing effect. We use plasma-activated water to capture the ammonia and clean it more cleanly.” Blue Plasma is now a spinoff of Blue Engineering.
Rondeel and his colleagues didn’t just tackle the idea because they liked it. “We really needed that: we needed to prove that we were able to realize ideas from the university. Not everyone can do that, but with this process, we showed that we can play in the Champions League.”
Another example is less spectacular at first sight, but the result is clear. Rondeel holds a flat package in front of the webcam: hair dye. “Normally, aluminum foil is used if you want to dye or perm your hair. Quite expensive and not recyclable. For a customer who really focuses on sustainability, the production process has been turned upside down and the foil has been replaced by coated paper. The company then asked us how much better its new method was. Our analysis showed that CO2 emissions had decreased by as much as 65 percent.”
Sustainability is increasingly in the spotlight. Rondeel sees it happening all around him. “Certainly everyone under thirty is very aware of it. We receive a lot of internship assignments and graduation requests from young people who are very involved with sustainability. From mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and software.” Yes, software engineers have a role to play as well. “You can take big steps with smart controls. Just think of something as simple as a sleep mode on a machine. That way, you can save 10-15 percent.”
It doesn’t stop there. Rondeel, who studied aircraft construction in Haarlem, always tries to optimize taking his mechanical engineering background as a starting point. “With software, you can often iron out the last wrinkles. But you can also look at it the other way around. For example, you could choose a material that doesn’t fully meet the requirements but is easier to recycle and invest a little bit extra in software so that it still works. We did that once in a project. A bold decision from the client, but it worked.”
Companies are responding to the sustainability trend and see the added financial value. A good example is Canon. The company has designed some of its copiers in such a way that it can recycle motors and other parts. Discarded printers are taken apart and components that haven’t reached the end of their life cycle are passed on to a next model. “These kinds of examples are all about standardization within an organization and a modular setup of your machines,” Rondeel clarifies.
A problem that Rondeel and his colleagues encountered soon after the foundation of Blue Engineering is measurability. “For a techie, sustainability can be an abstract concept. What is it? And how do I know that one design is more sustainable than another?,” Rondeel explains. There were, and still are, few tools a diehard engineer can use.
“We came across an open-source tool for life cycle analysis. This allows us to carry out analyses of the impact of a company’s processes and products on the environment. We take an X-ray of the sustainability performance, as it were. Blue Engineering’s expertise lies in the translation of this analysis into concrete advice for production processes or, where necessary, a redesign of the product. This way, we can actually help machine builders and mechatronics companies to become more sustainable.”
For material selection, Blue Engineering is currently integrating a tool for ABCX analysis. “With that method, you can categorize the materials in your design. A means that the material is ideal for recycling. Substances in which you have to invest to be able to use them again get the B label. C is for materials that cannot be upcycled. And, finally, X stands for the prohibited materials,” says Rondeel. “With X materials, you seriously have to consider whether you really need them. Sometimes the answer is ‘yes.’ Then you have to make sure that they don’t end up in a landfill or the incinerator and set up a model so that you can retrieve them and keep them in a re-use program.”
There are also tools on the market to calculate the energy consumption of your solution. “As with LCA and ABCX, they’re still in their infancy,” admits Rondeel. “But that certainly doesn’t mean that all those tools are worthless. On the contrary. If you include the LCA footprint in your requirements from day 1, you can achieve really cool things. The same goes for the ABCX method. Such a tool often works wonders because it pushes you straight to the point. ‘Maybe I should reevaluate if I can replace that X material?’ That mindset alone can make all the difference.”
“It’s not rocket science, more like a paradigm shift,” Rondeel continues. “Put on your sustainability glasses once in a while, and you can easily pick the low-hanging fruit. Dare to appoint a person internally or externally who specializes in this matter, and ask them to hold up a mirror at review moments. Choose blue. Try an alternative material that may be more expensive than steel or iron but can be recycled better. Or opt for click, screw or clamp connections that are easier to disassemble. Awareness is key, and then you’ll experience surprising things.”