Banking on Green13 Jan, 2011 By: Jim Romeo
At Yakima, lifecycle thinking generates products that not only reduce carbon footprint but also drive innovation and save money.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of Cadalyst magazine.
Forget about doing the right thing, giving back, and corporate conscience. Today, companies in increasing numbers are pursuing sustainable product design because, plain and simple, it makes good business sense. Environmental performance is the newest criteria for product development — and it's driving innovation and boosting profits.
An approach known as lifecycle assessment, or LCA, is key to realizing these bottom-line benefits, and it's catching on. LCA models the complex interaction between a product and the environment, from cradle to grave. When used in early-stage design, it brings sustainability considerations into product development by taking a comprehensive view of a product's potential lifecycle impacts on the environment in an effort to reduce those impacts (including carbon footprint), as well as overall costs. In short, it supports what is known as the double bottom line: planet and profits.
One company putting LCA to the test is Yakima Products, based in Beaverton, Oregon — a provider of popular vehicle-mounted racks to carry equipment for kayaking, bicycling, skiing, and camping. Like many of its customers, Yakima is enthusiastic about preserving the outdoors for long-term enjoyment. On the Planet Payback page of its web site, the company outlines the corporate principles that guide everything from product design to how employees commute to work. "Our primary objective is reduction. We constantly look for ways to create less waste and consume less energy," the site states.
Products such as Yakima's FrontLoader and ForkLift bike mounts must be environmentally friendly as well as practical, durable, and profitable. Image courtesy of Yakima Products.
What the site does not reveal is that Yakima has found that environmentally friendly ideals make for better products and bigger profits.
Assessing the Lifecycle
Environmental performance incorporates many facets of a product's lifecycle, including design, manufacturing supply chain management, and brand value. LCA goes beyond the common misconception that sustainable design always costs more. In fact, LCA can cumulatively reduce the total cost of product ownership.
Terry Swack is CEO of Sustainable Minds, the company that develops the Sustainable Minds LCA software used by Yakima and other companies to support lifecycle assessment. The software-as-a-service product allows Yakima to estimate, evaluate, compare, and track the environmental performance of products throughout their lifecycles based on real-time environmental impact data. Product teams can make informed trade-off decisions between performance, cost, and other criteria early in the product development process. Design options that reduce environmental impact (or improve environmental performance) can be identified before changes become costly or impossible to make.
The Sustainable Minds Scorecard report summarizes the environmental impacts of the original aluminum ForkLift compared with the redesigned steel version.
Swack explained that 75% of manufacturing costs are committed by the end of a product's conceptual design stage. "Decisions about materials, energy, recyclability, and longevity lock in a product's lifecycle environmental performance. It is too expensive to change the design later." Examining and manually computing every conceivable what-if scenario is hardly realistic; however, software tools that utilize comprehensive product LCA are an expedient way to evaluate various scenarios and ultimately produce an efficient and economical design.
Chris Sautter, advanced development manager at Yakima Products, said, "We don't view sustainability as a cost adder. Often, we find product design solutions that are more sustainable are also cost or performance enhancements, so they are good for the business in ways other than sustainability. We treat sustainability as a requirement trade-off that is considered from the beginning, just like cost, aesthetics, performance, manufacturability, weight, features, functions, and durability."
Material choice often is the root of design trade-offs. "More sustainable material has lower performance characteristics such as strength, cost, and weather resistance," Sautter said. For example, changing from a resin that has UV-resistant additives to one without is an improvement from a sustainability standpoint, but the product will degrade cosmetically and structurally in one or two years. With the UV-resistant additives, the product will be suitable for use in the outdoors for 10 years. "Another example is that reducing the material use in a specific component should reduce cost and lower environmental impact, but will probably also reduce strength. Surface finishes add to weather resistance but come at a sustainability cost." Designers must determine which features are negotiable.
Detailed results of the Sustainable Minds analysis provide quantified data to support informed trade-off decisions.
But often requirements are aligned, and Yakima finds that improvements in one area result in improvements elsewhere as well. One example of this is seen in the design of the company's ForkLift rooftop bike mount. Designers switched from aluminum to steel parts without reducing strength or durability — or adding weight. LCA results showed that the combined impacts of materials and processes of roll-formed mild steel had significantly less environmental impact than those of extruded aluminum. And, Sautter added, "The new steel design reduced the component cost by over 50%."
When analyzing the ForkLift design for sustainability, Yakima concurrently worked on its newer FrontLoader bike rack and discovered that some of the design changes it made for the ForkLift could be applied to the FrontLoader. "On the FrontLoader, the change from aluminum to steel also allowed us to weld other steel brackets and reduce cost and complexity. If we had stayed with aluminum wheel trays, we would have needed a more complex assembly inside the FrontLoader and would have reduced strength," said Sautter.
Discussing the design of Yakima's ForkLift product, Swack explained, "By changing materials in this product, Yakima improved the environmental performance, maintained or perhaps even improved the functional performance, and dramatically reduced the cost to manufacture, thus increasing their margins. They were able to bring a better, greener product to market — in support of their brand — and not charge the customer more. This is a great example to dismiss the fallacy that greener products cost more."
Designed to Last
At Yakima, durability is one design priority that isn't compromised. When products last, they don't wind up in landfills soon after they're purchased. "By ensuring our products are durable, usable, and desirable for a long time, we're effectively minimizing their impact on the environment," said Sautter. "This might seem counterproductive, because then we'll sell [fewer] products, but our customers value our products' durability, which is one of the reasons we have such a large market share."
Yakima ensures durability by modeling in SolidWorks and analyzing the strength of each design using finite-element analysis (FEA) before building prototypes. "We have a full prototype shop with in-house selective laser sintering [SLS] capability, so we can test early and often," Sautter explained. "All of our products are tested throughout the development process in the lab and in the field to ensure that they stand up to real-world conditions. We check for performance in the range of conditions our products are exposed to, from the cold of winter in the Rockies to the summer heat in the Southwest."
Many Yakima products are large and can be costly to package and ship — taking a toll on the bottom line and the planet. So the company has focused on making products lighter as well as using a minimal amount of corrugated cardboard (made from recycled material) to box and ship products. "Smaller, lighter cartons are easier to ship, so more fit in a truck," explained Sautter. "More in a truck means less fuel used per product to get to market."
From start to finish, LCA enables Yakima to make meaningful comparisons and analyze product performance. This translates into efficiently designed products. "[LCA enables] better use of materials, which tends to reduce material cost without a loss in performance," said Sautter. "Our customers understand and appreciate both the value of our products and sustainability, so when we make good design decisions, we're helping our brand, our business efficiency, and the environment."
On its web site, the company states, "At Yakima, we're extremely proud of what we do. Because we're not just making the world's finest car racks — we're making the world a happier place." If you could do all that and build a stronger business at the same time — why wouldn't you?