Material and process engineering provide important parts of the solution for combatting climate change. Simulation tools with integrated material data management can be of great help to product designers and engineers.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has calculated that over 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste were generated in America alone in 2018. Of this total, just 94 million tons, about 32 percent, were recycled or composted. The remainder was sent to landfills. While much of municipal solid waste is food, landfills are also crowded with discarded consumer and industrial products. The end-of-life environmental impact of these products and increasing recycling rates are key areas of focus for the world’s manufacturers. There can be no doubt that material and process engineering provide important parts of the solution for combatting climate change.
According to professors David Cebon and Michael Ashby, assessing the overall sustainability of products over their entire lifespan is a complex task, requiring comprehensive data for the environmental performance of materials and manufacturing processes. “Because every product has unique environmental implications, engineers need to consider a wide range of sustainability issues, including environmental footprint, current and pending environmental regulations and the consequent supply risk. This requires comprehensive, high-quality data about materials, processes, coatings, substances, legislation, geo-political factors, and so on,” says Cebon, a mechanical engineering professor at Cambridge University.
“Is a material banned, or likely to be phased out, in certain markets in the future? What are the performance implications when you make a material substitution? And will a performance degradation due to substitution, such as lower fuel efficiency, result in an even larger negative impact?” Cebon asks. “Technology helps illuminate and address many of these questions, but engineers typically need to conduct rigorous analyses to make optimal design decisions.”
Ashby, a research professor and principal investigator at Cambridge’s Engineering Design Centre, agrees. “There can be no doubt that the trade-offs are very sophisticated ones,” he says. “Many risks, such as government regulations, are time dependent and difficult to predict in advance. And there’s always new information emerging about the long-term impacts as materials break down. These are issues that product developers need to remain informed about.”
Supporting sustainability via material and process selection doesn’t end with understanding environmental impacts. “The definition of sustainability is ‘the ability of an entity to continue operating effectively over the long term,’” notes Ashby. “And ‘the long term’ is a key phrase.”
As consumers become more aware of climate change and social responsibility, every company has to ensure due diligence on their material and process selection – or risk damaging both brand image and market share. “Sustainability, as it pertains to materials selection, can’t be a consideration that’s ‘bolted on’ at the last minute,” says Cebon. “It must be addressed from the earliest stages of design.”
“One of the most important thing designers can do is gather and apply as much detailed information about their materials options as they can,” concludes Ashby. “That means structural characteristics, thermal characteristics and weight, but it also means looking at the multi-layered global supply chain, regulatory guidelines, social and human impacts, and costs. Sustainability means expanding your perspective and thinking about the entire life cycle of the material, in all of its aspects.”
Simulation tools with integrated material data management such as Ansys Granta MI offer product designers and engineers an instant access to a wide array of material properties as well as embodied energy, CO2 footprint, recyclability and more. This insight into the material data for a particular component can then be used to understand the impact of their use on a product’s sustainability, early in design. It also helps product development teams to look to the long-term security of the material supply chain and the likelihood of disruption, which is another challenge companies are facing today. Especially at a time when critical materials are being managed by some countries as a key geopolitical asset in what’s termed ‘resource imperialism.’