Designing Parts to Meet Sustainability Goals

Exploring the various possibilities when incorporating sustainability into part design

Circular economy

The environmental impact of a final product can be traced back to the earliest stages of product development – during the concept or design phase. According to McKinsey & Company, the design process typically influences 80% of a product's sustainable impact on the environment. Designing with sustainability in mind can bring value to your stakeholders with innovative solutions that support environmental, social, or governance (ESG) commitments. 

In this article, we will discuss defining a design purpose when incorporating sustainability into part design. This includes evaluating color and material performance possibilities and the various questions to consider during the design process. 

Defining a Design Purpose

There can be a variety of design factors such as usage, function, cost, aesthetics, and material performance. Sustainability can be an integral element to each of these. Aesthetics and material performance are generally the two key factors that enhance part design while helping meet an organization’s sustainability goals.

1)    Aesthetics
Visual choices of parts are typically tailored to the type of raw material used to formulate the final product. When a goal is to develop a more sustainable end product, the preferred raw material can be either bio-based or recycled. Both of these sustainable raw materials can have some color limitations due to their differences in feedstock consistency compared to traditional raw materials.

Biopolymers generally derive from renewable sources such as plants, corn, wheat, straw, and sugar cane. Bio-based raw materials typically have more color options than recycled raw materials, as the feedstock can be slightly more consistent. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when coloring biopolymers: 

  • Biopolymers can offer more flexibility with translucent or opaque shades. 
  • There is generally limited differentiation in aesthetic appeal when looking at a pre-colored biopolymer or one that is colored at the press.

Recycled raw materials typically contain either post-consumer recycled (PCR) content or post-industrial recycled (PIR) content. PIR content can have greater flexibility when considering color choices as the scrap materials are routed through waste treatment within the manufacturing site, rather than at separate recycling facility like PCR materials. Here are thoughts to consider when evaluating the visual opportunities of recycled raw materials:

  • Recycled raw materials can be susceptible to various imperfections with their visual appearance – such as tiger striping, splay, and scratch and mar resistance. 
  • Products that require a tight color tolerance can be difficult to match with recycled content.  
  • Unlike biopolymers, recycled raw materials are typically more consistent as a pre-colored solution rather than being colored at the press. 

Developing a consistent color with recycled raw materials, like PCR content, can be challenging. However, there are tools that can help with color-matching PCR raw materials, similar to the process of coloring traditional raw materials. Avient can help with its PCR Color Prediction Service. This digital tool can determine the color possibilities or limitations – before sample development – to help optimize the ratio of virgin resin to PCR and elevate aesthetic needs. 

2)    Material Performance 
The performance of parts can be heavily dependent on the material choice, application, or industry. Moreover, performance can also include the functionality of parts towards the end of a product life cycle – such as being recycled or reused. Here are some of the recent design trends that can increase part performance and its sustainability impact: 

  • Lightweighting: Engineered polymer materials designed with a high strength-to-weight ratio, have similar structural integrity as traditional materials, but can be lighter in weight. Additionally, the manufacturing process can be more efficient as some formulations can enable thinner walls, allowing for the lightweighting of end products. 
  • Incorporating sustainable content: The goal of integrating bio-derived or recycled raw materials into polymers is to provide a similar aesthetic appeal and performance to petroleum-based polymers. The use of computer-aided engineering (CAE) software – including finite element analysis (FEA) methodology – can help digitally simulate various applications to confirm that parts containing sustainable content are meeting performance requirements.
  • Reparability: This concept is relatively new to some industries, and focuses on reducing waste in the circular economy. It is based on the idea of designing a product with components that can be repaired, replaced, or reused. Otherwise, products that can’t be repaired when damaged or broken, typically end up as waste. 
  • Post-consumption: Depending on the application, products may require multiple materials or parts during production. Post-consumption is the idea of determining the sustainable role of parts after a product’s life cycle, whether it be disassembly or recycling. Examples of this include creating a final product with recycled raw materials, or materials that enable consolidated parts, to ensure the disassembly and recycling are a controlled process. 

To learn more about how Avient’s services can assist in the product development process, click here. After defining these different design purposes, the next step is determining how to incorporate sustainability into the design process.

Sustainable Part Design Considerations

Developing a design strategy while incorporating sustainability benefits is helpful when creating new products and can support an organization’s environmental commitments. Avient’s team of design engineers can assist with design ideas, understand an organization’s sustainability goals, and formulate innovative solutions to meet those goals. Typically, when incorporating sustainability into design, there are three different questions to consider:

1)    What are your sustainability goals?

  • The first step toward incorporating sustainability into part design is aligning any innovations with an organization’s sustainability goals, whether those innovations be performance or aesthetic related. 
  • For example, if an organization is focused on gaining carbon footprint credits, then it might consider designing products with sustainable raw materials. Also, if an organization wanted to reduce energy consumption during manufacturing or transport, it might consider a product of lighter weight or fewer parts.  

2)    What do you need your product to do?
•    A product’s design isn’t focused on just the performance, there are also end-user functionality options to consider. Ensuring that parts can meet sustainability goals and performance standards can be a balancing act, understanding the potential trade-offs is critical. 

  • The value chain can be involved in determining the functionality of a product. Examples of value chain processes that enhance the functionality and sustainability benefits include production, optimizing design and material selection to reduce energy use, lowering the weight of parts to decrease fuel emissions during transport, and the end-of-life choices, such as enabling parts to be more easily recycled. 

3)    What does your product need to look like? 

  • The aesthetic look of a product can be formulated to specific needs while providing environmental benefits. Depending on the application or industry, products can require more attention to their visual appearance to meet customer needs. 
  • Examples of aesthetic processes that can help meet sustainability goals include the sourcing and coloring of sustainable raw materials and the production of pre-colored solutions that can eliminate any secondary painting steps.

These questions can bring an organization closer to achieving a product that helps achieve its sustainability goals. While it can be a complex process, designing for sustainability can have a high environmental impact and bring value to eco-conscious consumers. Avient’s material science expertise can help create custom sustainable formulations that meet performance and visual requirements. 

Key Takeaways

Incorporating sustainable elements into part design can help achieve the sustainability commitments made to an organization’s stakeholders. Eighty percent of the environmental impact of a material is influenced by the design or concept phase of product development (McKinsey & Company). During this phase, there are various design possibilities to consider that have sustainability benefits.

1)    Sustainable color possibilities:

  • The colorability of sustainable parts is typically dependent on the sustainable raw material that is used, whether it is bio-based or recycled. 
  • Bio-based raw materials can have more color choices than recycled raw materials because their feedstock is typically more consistent. 
  • Pre-colored solutions can provide environmental benefits as they eliminate any secondary painting processes.

2)    Sustainable performance possibilities: 

  • Lightweighting is a concept of engineering materials to require less parts or manufacturing without compromising the durability of the final product. 
  • Material changes occur when a sustainable polymer can provide a similar performance to petroleum-based polymers. Computer-aided engineering (CAE) software can help design formulations that optimize the ratio of sustainable raw materials and virgin materials without sacrificing performance standards. 
  • Reparability is a relatively new trend in product development. This involves manufacturing parts to be repaired or reused, rather than ending up as waste.
  • Post-consumption is the idea of creating parts so that a final product cycle can be reused or recycled after its life cycle. 

3)    Questions to consider when designing a product for sustainability:

  • What are your sustainability goals? 
  • Which does your product need to do? 
  • What does your product need to look like?

If you are interested in incorporating sustainability into part design, contact us.