Design on track

Environment Business looks at an Envirowise programme aimed at helping companies implement practical green product design

Legislation based on the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive is bringing the concept of green product design to the fore across UK business.

This is not an area the European Commission is going to let slide. In June ministers reached a political agreement on the proposed Directive on Eco-Design Requirements for Energy-Using Products, which will further integrate the concept of green design into manufacturing following its adoption, which is anticipated in 2005.

Packaging law is also driving the concept, as compulsory targets for recovery and recycling force companies to minimise their packaging use, and increase the ease with which it can be reused.

But what does it mean?

The problem is, what exactly does green product design mean? It has been defined as "a proactive business approach to addressing environmental considerations in the earliest stages of the product development process in order to minimise negative environmental impacts throughout the product's life cycle".

What this means in the context of the legislation coming into force across the EU is designing products in such a way that materials which must be recovered are either eliminated or can be accessed easily when they are dismantled at the end of their life.

The biggest problem is in practice it can be extremely difficult to identify how it can achieved. It is a concept rather than a set of rules, similar in many ways to Six Sigma and 'concurrent design' before it.

This is one of the reasons Envirowise set up the DesignTrack programme, which offers SMEs an on-site, face-to-face visit by a consultant to identify cleaner design opportunities in a specified product.

Taking a step back

The advantage of these visits - beyond the expertise offered - is the opportunity for the company team members to re-evaluate their systems with the input of an outsider. "It gave us an opportunity to look at our products and processes in a new way," says Tim Ireland, head of product development at B&W Loudspeakers. "The visit made us question the materials we use and look at changing our assembly processes in an environmentally aware manner."

In the case of B&W Loudspeakers, the company changed both its external and internal packaging. However, Ireland says the company is now much more involved in the consequences of WEEE-related legislation.

Irelands approach to green design is simple: "For us it is a question of how to mitigate our costs to make sure we get the best deal in terms for paying for producer responsibility.

"When you're busy with day-to-day work, you don't get a chance to look a bit more objectively at the way things are done. The visit was useful in that it opened our eyes to some changes we might not otherwise have seen."

A team approach

Envirowise's Philip Price says the key to greener product design is a team approach: "Get the whole lot - designers, engineers, manufacturing - together at the very beginning, including the environmental people," he says. This way waste can be reduced throughout the design process, and when prototypes are engineered and manufacturing processes designed, nasty surprises are less likely.

And while green design is "basically good design", companies can find it hard to identify opportunities to reduce environmental impacts. However, once the ball is rolling, a cultural change often takes place as designers and other team members begin to look at product lifecycles differently.

Price gives the example of a company which was receiving products back at the end of their lifetime and was having to break them up to get at two components which needed to be recycled. All that was needed was for a washer to be designed in to allow access to the reusable components.

"If you've gone in for a day and the company has realised they can halve the number of screws they use - and that means a savings of several thousand pounds -that is going to filter up to management, and the designers are going to say 'hang on, what else can we achieve here'," he believes.

An excellent opportunity

The opportunities are huge, and - as with energy efficiency - generally unrecognised and not acted upon. But implementing greener design, with or without Envirowise assistance, is an excellent opportunity for companies to reduce their environmental impacts, and comply with legislation and a regulatory ethos which is not going to go away. Oh, and cut costs. Yes green design is about designers, and yes it needs support from management. But it's the environmental managers who need to get the ball rolling.


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