Thursday, August 21, 2008

Green trends heat up for next designs

Gone are the days when design was, well, design. Today it's design-for-manufacturability (DFM), design-for-quality, design-for-cost and design-for-environment (DfE).

DfE takes into account the environmental impact of a product from the time of its inception to the end of life, and then back into the resource pool for future products, typically referred to as cradle-to-cradle. "It's a radical departure from the status quo," said Pamela Gordon, lead consultant, Technology Forecasters Inc. (TFI).

"Over the past 50 years, we've moved to a disposable mentality for electronics. The benefits were quick and easy access to new technologies, but we had a buildup of electronic waste. DfE makes the product useful for many years," she added.

Maximizing use
When observing a DfE lens, virtually every aspect of a product is affected, like the size, weight and energy requirements. An important question often asked is, "Are there opportunities for reducing the number of components and consolidating components?" This could save real estate, trim the BOMs and the suppliers' count.

The types of materials for both the product and the packaging are essential. Redesigning the product for ease of disassembly will enable the reusable parts to be taken away at end of life. For those parts that can't be reused, the design has to maximize those that are recyclable to reduce the wastes going to landfill.

Once the product is designed, there are supply chains and logistics issues to consider, such as determining the manufacturing location to reduce the cost and carbon footprint. Another factor is how many miles all the components have to travel before they come together in the final product at the customer's location. One top-tier electronics OEM estimates that the carbon footprint of its supply chain is 20 times that of its own operations.

Seems like a lot to consider? It is, but virtually none of the DfE considerations are inconsistent with the cost or quality requirements of design. In fact, they can contribute in a positive way to both cost and quality.

The Xerox experience
Consider Xerox Corp. that has had a formal environmental commitment since 1991. By applying the principles of DfE to the design of the iGen3, a commercial printing system, the company dramatically improved the environmental impact of the product. More than 90 percent of the parts and subsystems within the machine are either recyclable or can be manufactured again. Eighty percent of the waste produced by the iGen3 is reusable, recyclable or returnable.

Besides Xerox, many other top-tier OEMs are engaged in DfE in one form or another such as Hewlett-Packard, Apple Inc., IBM Corp. and Intel Corp. that all have DfE programs. Among midtier and smaller companies, the rate of adoption has been slow, some saying they are nonexistent. "I don't see companies dealing seriously with DfE," said Michael Kirschner, president, Design Chain Associates, a design-consulting firm based in San Francisco. "There's no real incentive outside of the fear of Greenpeace," he added.

EU compliance
Gordon said: "Most electronics companies have only gone as far as compliance with the European Union's environmental directives on ROHS and WEEE. "DfE is like the quality movement of the 1980s. Those who are slow to embrace the trend did less favorably than those that figured out it produced financial benefit," she added.

There are a few exceptions, however. One is Blue Coat Systems, a high-growth maker of appliance-based solutions that enable IT organizations to optimize security and accelerate performance between users and applications across the enterprise WAN. A year ago, the company gathered a group of hardware engineers and product managers in a room for a DfE workshop and asked them to disassemble some products like Blue Coat products, competitors' products and a benchmark product that had applied DfE principles.

"The exercise was eye opener. We were surprised by how well Blue Coat products measured up to the benchmark product, even though we had not consciously designed for ease of recyclability," said David Cox, VP of operations, Blue Coat. "The exercise made us realize that we had a great opportunity to integrate DfE into the next generation of our product," he added.

Blue Coat created a cross-functional team to explore opportunities for DfE in a next-generation product. One design change they made was in power supplies. The current generation was employing a power supply that was less than 80 percent efficient. Blue Coat set a goal of more than 90 percent efficiency.

Size does matter
The designers chose an open-frame power supply that was smaller and 50 percent lighter, had better heat dissipation and consumed less energy. Because of its smaller size, more units can be packaged in a container, which means lower CO2 emissions per unit during transport. For the next fiscal year, Blue Coat is focusing on environmental initiatives that will save the company in excess of $1 million. "That's a conservative estimate," said Cox. "Employees really care about this," he added. "The beauty of it is that it's a no-brainer. You save the company's money to improve the customer experience and help the environment," he stressed.

- Bruce Rayner
EE Times

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