Eco Design: A Guideline
Design, ecology, and innovation – three hugely important themes in the development of products, concepts, and services. But a good solution depends on an end to end process that weighs up, evaluates, and creatively integrates all impacts, opportunities, and eventualities. The process steps and criteria required for the development of ecological products are discussed below.
Eco Product Development
Products must be innovative, at least if they are to be manufactured and marketed in the EU. The reason for this is that decent wages, non-toxic materials, and clean production procedures always translate into higher prices – and consumers must be happy to pay these, which is only the case if the product in question is a truly interesting solution.
But what makes a product innovative and which criteria do buyers apply? Technical innovation is one, but not the only one. Increasingly, products are only favoured if they are also ecologically sound and well designed. Technology plus ecology – this equation gives rise to the relevant requirements for developing new products: if these requirements are intelligently and consistently implemented, designed and produced, the result is fascinating products and good solutions. Eco design as a criterion for product development should not be viewed as an additional feature or investment, since eco design and product development imply, among other things, reduction of material usage, process steps, and energy consumption – and this means both cost reduction and greater efficiency. Above all, however, innovative, eco design means credibility, responsibility, and integrity.
Example: A Knitted Training Shoe
One of the best examples of eco design is the Nike Flyknit (launched in 2012) and all of its successors. The Nike Flyknit consists essentially of four components:
– an injection-moulded sole made of no more than two (foamed) plastics;
– a flat-knit upper made of various threads in various structures, from breathable net to very dense, sometimes in several layers for maximum stability;
– a shoelace;
– and an inlay.
The tongue, the holes respectively the eyelets for the laces, the heel stiffener – all of the necessary functions are integrated into the fabric. Its weave is controlled by software and knitted by a machine, with no need for wastage, punching tools, glue, presses, or sewing. The different sizes are scaled by the software and then knitted. Time-consuming preparations as in the manufacture of conventional training shoes (for example tool making) are not necessary. New product generations are designed, respectively programmed, on the computer, making them available for mass production with little delay and a minimum of investment. By switching threads, colour variants can be created without the kind of material waste involved when changing colours with plastics or textiles. Production on demand would be possible as tool and material changes are only a minor cost factor.
The decision to develop a shoe reduced to just four components was a bold one, where conventional sports shoes consist of around 60 parts. Nike, too, previously made shoes out of a wide range of off-the-roll and other raw materials (synthetics and textiles) by cutting, punching, gluing, welding, sewing, embossing, and thermoforming. Nike’s designers and engineers called the traditional manufacture of training shoes into question, analysing functions and, inspired by lightweight construction, reducing the number of components. A more ecologically produced training shoe is hardly possible: some of the synthetic threads could be replaced by natural fibres; the plastics used for the sole could possibly be made using renewable raw materials; I suspect they are made in China, but since there are flat knitting machines on every continent, production of the uppers could be organised regionally.
The example of the Flyknit shows in a concentrated form what is at stake today in product development: technical innovation, ecology, and convincingly designed results that appeal to the consumer. Product development that observes and implements these criteria is demanding. It calls for significant investment and only succeeds when designers, engineers, sales, and market research work together intensively in an interdisciplinary team.
Eco Design in the Product Development Process
Every new product development process calls for a different approach, which must in turn be specifically adapted to the product, company, theme, or solution in question: a car, for example, needs different processes, guidelines, laws, standards, tests, warranties, etc. than a sports shoe. But there are criteria and development phases that apply to all innovative, ecological products. The phases described below try to outline a product development process that integrates the above-mentioned criteria so as to ensure effective and, above all, ecological development.
Task Definition and Team Make-Up
When a new product generation is to be developed, the following requirements and questions typically need to be taken into account:
– the product range needs expanding,
– a product is no longer state of the art and needs optimising,
– research and development have given the green light to an innovation that can now be implemented in a product,
– to secure market leadership, a new patentable flagship product is required,
– unit sales or market share are dwindling,
– the next generation of users has a different set of values and needs, and these are to be taken into account during new product development.
Developing an entirely new product also involves risks for sales and marketing. Among others, there is uncertainty as to whether the new target group will be won over, whether investments will pay off, whether all departments will pull their weight, whether suitable solutions will be found, or whether returns will be as high the following year. To embark on a complex project, a team is required that has a broad skill base and the capacity to empathise with users and the company alike, working together in a manner that is focussed, inquisitive, and result-oriented to arrive at a useful project-oriented analysis. Tailored to the specific project, these team analyses gather knowledge and experience that are shared, reflected on, and corroborated by all involved. This is where the project begins: a good team must be put together and a suitable project manager must be found who is capable of giving the discussion an overarching structure.
Every project begins with the definition of the positive problem. What could the positive problem be? Where does the development of an innovation begin? How to find the basis for the project? What could its objective be?
First Project Phase: Usability Context Analysis
There are various analytical methods that may be of interest in new product development: motive and demand analysis, usability context analysis, requirements analysis and user structure analysis. In most cases, a combination of the different methods makes the most sense: they should be combined in such a way as to allow the requirements and needs for the project, the company, and the users to be investigated and elaborated.
Usability context analysis begins by studying the social developments, which, in the broadest sense, affect the products and functions they perform. For this, it’s necessary not only to consult the usual, often in-house statistics, but also to examine national and international newspapers, culture and lifestyle magazines, TV and radio programmes, digital channels, and other media that communicate cutting edge information. What’s on people’s minds? Travellers, gardeners, patients, medical personnel, elderly, sportspeople, and so forth? What kind of solutions and creative approaches are they currently developing themselves? These questions should also be asked in person. A company gains the most important insights via interviews and discussions with the so-called scene, by participating, accompanying, getting to know, observing, and ultimately understanding the users. Such conversations should be conducted by everyone in the team (product manager, sales people, marketing strategist, engineer, developer, designer, etc.) and the resulting observations should be analysed together.
During usability context analysis, unexpected insights arise all the time, requiring the team to flexibly refine and adjust the questions to specific individuals. This is only possible if the future developers are present – rather than, as is usually the case, an external consulting firm carrying out target group analysis based on existing models. An intensive and well-run usability context analysis can deliver key insights in a relatively short time, identify relevant product themes, and define the most important parameters for the project brief. In addition, observations can already be made for the communications strategy, suitable sales models, and above all potential problem-solving approaches.
Involving future users in the development of the next product generation can be very helpful. They can also be integrated in subsequent stages of the process, for example, to discuss and test prototypes.
Networked thinking, interdisciplinary work, establishing appropriate strategic methods and criteria for the development of approaches to innovation, and further development through to production – these are just some aspects of interdisciplinary team work.
A vital step in eco design and new product development consists of finding out what people really need and want – both current users and the next generation. This phase of product development should be treated as a voyage of discovery to new themes, unknown people, cultures, contexts, activities, disciplines, technologies, etc. In the analysis phase, all details, pictures, actions, statements, descriptions, and observations should be reviewed and carefully studied. Observations must be jointly analysed and discussed by the team, with brainstorming used to draw inspiration from neighbouring themes, applications, and requirements.
Analysis of Observations
– Which aspects were previously unknown?
– Which behavioural patterns are of interest?
– Which problems occurred often or are clearly relevant?
– Are there phenomena or philosophies that can be identified as a new mindset?
– Which specific criteria were mentioned in the context of product and solution?
– Are there cultural differences?
– Are there observations that seem insignificant in isolation but that develop meaning when combined?
An exploration of all neighbouring issues, examining functions and technical requirements on a scientific basis, brings extensive new insights. Where do similar uses or phenomena occur? How do they work? Further support may be obtained from ethnologists, sociologists, engineers, biologists, and scientists from the studies of religion or the environment, as well as outstanding institutes in their disciplines. This list is meant to show how far research should extend even at the start of the project. Analysis is a constructive and detective-like task, aiming to filter out the interests and needs of user groups. In this process, everything is relevant, and important aspects may result from an observation that seems to be of secondary importance. The further the team thinks, the more it moves away from the status quo, and towards an innovative product idea. All of the various insights are collected, combined, discussed, and checked for their utility and function, giving rise to possible project themes.
In the last step of phase one, the themes and approaches resulting from this research are checked for relevance. The question of relevance is of great importance, and it merits a holistic approach. Is this solution really needed? Does it serve a previously unserved purpose? What is its utility? Is it defensible in ethical and social terms and on the basis of the latest scientific findings? Does the development result in an improvement for humans and nature, the environment and the society? What is the potential for innovation? Are the technical, energy, and material costs of realising the idea justified? There are many other questions that should also be posed to the future users. Only if the right questions are asked at the usability context analysis stage, and only if the answers are discussed offensively and ruthlessly within an egalitarian and interdisciplinary team, meaningful solutions can emerge.
Second Project Phase: Functional Brief and Concept
The second project phase begins with defining the functional factors. All themes linked in any way with usage are now elaborated and defined on the basis of innovative and ecological criteria. The results are then put together in a brief for the next development stages. This brief focuses mainly on the needs of potential users. To this end, the observations and results of the first phase are consulted and assembled into a coherent list of requirements:
– What is the product used for? By whom? When? How often?
– How is it used? Ergonomics? Behavioural pattern?
– How long is it used for? How often?
– Which different operating modes does it have?
– What happens to the product when it is not being used? Is there scope for reuse?
– Who uses it? What are the best specific procedures for using it?
– Which mechanical, physical, electronic, and chemical requirements must be fulfilled?
The results serve as the basis for a functional brief that contains: the exact details on usage; all geometrical, legal, material-specific and ergonomic requirements; and the necessary dimensions. In this phase, the degree of innovation and the originality of the concept can already be established, defined, and reviewed. At this point in time, all of the relevant eco factors must be taken into account in conceptual terms. For all subsequent development steps (design and construction, raw material sourcing, production through to disposal) the following applies: as little as possible, as much as necessary. The question why briefings usually take place before the start of a project, before the team has begun with research and analysis, is often placed. Presumably this is due to fear or uncertainty concerning unpredictable design or incalculable expenditure in terms of time and money. For this reason alone, when complex issues are being dealt with, an interdisciplinary team should always be assembled and given the freedom, as in science, to define its own themes and criteria.
Factors for Coherent Eco Design
Energy usage, volume, weight, recycling, transport, raw materials, tools, components, pollutants, earth moving – only when these factors, that are dealt with in more detail below, are taken into consideration and radically called into question during the concept phase can a coherent eco design be developed. The eco factors listed above have a direct impact on the product’s degree of innovation: lightweight construction, miniaturisation or functional integration are often economically or ecologically motivated, at the same time as leading to innovative solutions. In the concept phase, the product or solution should already be examined with regard to all relevant factors. Is longevity guaranteed in terms of usage, aesthetics, construction, and function? Which combinations of materials and production method are suitable? What are the consequences of the different variants regarding number of units, disassembly, investment, scheduling, tools, locations, design, or product language?
Finalising the Functional Brief
The functional brief and usage concept conclude by defining minimal geometries and dimensions and the minimum amount of necessary components, and depicting them in a technical sketch or drawing. Together with potential users and the manufacturer, the parameters are discussed, checked and, where necessary, added to. The usage concept is further developed until the definitive list of requirements can be established. The result brings together all of the relevant properties and criteria of the product or solution to be developed. The brief should include the following information:
– users, target group;
– product philosophy, meaning;
– usage, function;
– construction and dimensions;
– conceivable material and technology combinations;
– aesthetics, product language;
– production methods;
– industry-specific, technical factors;
– guidelines and laws;
– and the eco strategy for the final product.
The finalisation of these criteria and the formulation of the brief are the basis for the rest of the new product development, and from this point on they are more or less set in stone: a benchmark for all future decisions. It may seem over the top to make all this effort before a single line has been drawn, but it definitely pays off later as there is no more need for the debate of principles, time can be used more efficiently, and the product’s meaning and function has been put on solid foundations.
Third Project Phase: Design and Construction
This phase should involve the stringent implementation of the usage concept and the project brief into a product, service, or solution. All relevant criteria regarding usage, function, and ecology are established and must now be translated into construction, mechanics, electronics etc., and be designed. The design of an ecological product should be in keeping with its function and materials, as this is the only way to ensure longevity. The design should be self-explanatory – this applies to both mechanical and electronic products. Switches, handles, direction, movement, locking and unlocking, and replacement are communicated via the product’s design, thus assuring correct operation and above all safety. The user interface and ergonomics determine the product’s utility value.
Product Language – Product Message
Colours, forms, material combinations, dimensions, associations, analogies, look and feel, structure, smell – these and many other factors determine the product language that is conceptualised and designed. Alongside function and innovation, product language is key in deciding whether a product is unique, fascinating, and successful. For a company, the definition and realisation of product language and product message are a highly sensitive issue because they communicate the product’s and brand’s value and uniqueness. The design of a product takes place in stages and using different means: sketches, scenarios, drawings, 3D programming and visualisation, solid model, and model. Once the preliminary design is largely established, intensive co-operation with the engineers begins.
Formal Design and Construction
Draft, formal design, and construction should be viewed as a single process; they take place at the same time and influence one another. Ideally, designers and constructors should work together closely on a new product development. Dimensions are drawn up, strengths calculated, wall thicknesses altered, flow paths in injection moulding or degrees of deformation in pressure moulding simulated. The insights gained are channelled back into the design. Provided these steps take place more or less simultaneously and in co-ordinated fashion, it is possible to avoid unnecessary discussions and time-consuming reworking.
From the outset, it is also important to bear costs in mind, and above all the production possibilities of the manufacturer and of certified or regional suppliers. However, such considerations should not prevent a highly innovative solution from being realised by means of a new, as-yet-unknown production method. By this point, the manufacturer should also have clearly stated its research and development budget. Quantities and schedule should have been fixed in order to facilitate ecological production planning. The number of units is an important variable, influencing the use of robotics, tools, and energy; the complexity and number of tools and their lifecycle have a major influence on the design of the product. Undercuts, multi-component injection moulding, and surface design must all be taken into account. The following aspects flow into the design:
– Which product properties are most important?
– Which material properties are required for optimal functionality?
– Which materials and material combinations are suitable?
– If necessary, how can they be (formally, chemically, mechanically) connected?
– Which components does the product consist of?
– Which technologies are conceivable?
– Can the number of components, tools, machines, and suppliers be reduced?
– How do assembly and disassembly work?
– How much energy is needed for the various production processes?
– What is the ecological impact of the various material-component-technology concepts?
– What formal, aesthetic, and innovative potential do these combinations offer?
– What possible variations are there for further development of the product family?
Wastage, offcuts, and finishings such as surface treatments and coatings should be taken into account at this stage. Here, too, for ecological and economical reasons, the maxim applies: as little as possible, as much as necessary. Another issue to bear in mind is maximising the reversibility of assembly and disassembly, ideally using positive-locking mechanical connections or specific adhesives that come unstuck on demand.
For most product segments, eco design means high-quality processing, durability, longevity, friendly customer service for spare parts, maintenance, repair, or planned recycling without loss of value. These factors must be taken into account in the construction.
Thought must also be given to logistics-friendly production, such as reducing volume by folding mechanisms or collapsibility. Now that products are increasingly being stored on the road and delivered within 24 hours, it is enormously important to minimise package size, especially for consumer goods.
The construction and design of the product must be developed with a view to all ecological factors affecting manufacture, material and technology, usage and disposal. To achieve this, the development team must view and evaluate the ecological factors in a holistic manner, at the same time as being able to propose and elaborate alternative materials, technologies, constructions, production methods, etc. from a wide range of fields.
Reduction and Resource Efficiency
Reduction is an important criterion for innovative and ecological products. Materials, water, and energy are kept to a minimum, and all resources used are checked with regard to carbon footprint, pollutants, and recycling. Reduction means developing resource-saving solutions via lightweight construction, miniaturisation, simplification or even dematerialisation.
Another criterion here is resource efficiency, that is economising on raw materials such as water and energy, both in the product itself and in the production process. Products should use the smallest possible number of materials, in the purest possible form. In most cases, mixes of materials and sandwich or composite materials are less environmentally friendly. Consequently, a major challenge for eco design is to develop products as single-material or single-component constructions without loses in functional or aesthetic terms. Only when design and construction are developed symbiotically an optimal solution can be created.
In many cases, design and construction are developed one after the other. If the design is created first, followed by construction and execution, then the design may not be based on the best possible technical options and production conditions available to the manufacturer. If the product is developed and constructed on a purely technical basis, with a little design added as an afterthought, then the process lacks all of the fundamental input resulting from usability context analysis and the development of form, function and product language. Such approaches should be considered outdated. Decisions are made independently of one another, and it is then often too late to make the necessary corrections. This results in too many compromises or the need for additional time that generates unnecessary costs and may delay the market launch, thus damaging the company’s image. The chance of a good solution is wasted. A society and an economy that (fortunately) depends crucially on manufacturing industry can ill afford such failings if it wishes to produce high-quality, innovative products. Innovations are the result of team thinking. This phase is critical in determining the product’s level of innovation. It is here that ecology and fascination take on material form.
Once the design and construction have been established, a functional prototype is usually built consisting largely of original materials. Only prototypes permit a final evaluation of the development – both in-house and in discussions with individuals from the target group or other specialists. The prototype is the best basis for a final green light.
Fourth Project Phase: Production Planning
This phase involves the development, planning, and manufacture of all that is needed to produce the product, service, or solution. This phase is highly complex and calls for different approaches depending on the product and sector. In the context of products focusing on innovation and eco design, the following general and specific factors concerning the choice of materials and the construction of tools and products should be researched and developed intensively.
Final Choice of Materials
– Which properties are required?
– How is the material being processed?
– Are there ecological alternatives or combinations?
– What is the material’s ecological impact on manufacture, usage, or recycling?
– Materials should not be selected purely on the basis of fashion. One task of product development and marketing is to realise meaningful solutions as good-looking, high-quality designs and to communicate them as the best possible choice.
Product and Tool Construction
– The choice of material determines manufacturing and processing.
– It is essential to develop a minimal solution with regard to energy, raw materials, waste, pollutants, etc., both for the end product and for the tools.
– How many tools are required?
– Planning for maximum tool lifecycles.
– Co-ordination of design, construction, and optimal tool usage (for example with regard to surface structures, radii, flow paths, labelling, and wear) to protect the tools and maximise tool lifespan.
– Does the usual, conventional manufacturing technique make sense?
– Take existing capacities and regional availability into account, but not at all costs.
– Planning of machine capacities, production flows, and the entire logistics chain (material, raw materials, storage, transport, assembly, accessories, etc.).
– Selection (and where necessary certification) of suppliers, programmers, or experts.
– Evaluation of the optimal (most ecological, cost-efficient, innovative) solution. This means developing the best possible combination of material usage, tool construction, production techniques and, where appropriate, recycling or upcycling.
– Choice of environmentally friendly materials: these should be renewable and available in sufficient quantity. If possible and feasible, they should be organic, recycled or locally sourced.
– Materials, chemicals, fabrics, excipient, lubricants and solvents, detergents, coatings, and impregnations that are detrimental to health or the environment must not be used.
– Technologies and materials, whose disposal is unclear, complicated, potentially dangerous, or toxic, must not be used.
– No use of polluting procedures that release toxic substances or require large amounts of energy, water, temperature, pressure, or steel and aluminium tools.
– The production process should include as few procedures and steps as possible, as in most cases this means less pollutants, less material, less tools, and less energy.
– No use of hazardous substances or procedures during the sourcing and processing of raw materials.
– Where possible, develop a regional supply and production chain using local suppliers, materials, raw materials, and energy sources to minimise transport distances.
– The development, construction, and planning of the production process should also be carried out in a team – with constructors simulating the manufacturing procedure and optimising geometries at the same time as the designers are planning tools systems, materials, and logistics.
Fifth Project Phase: Production
If all solutions and approaches have been processed and discussed in detail in the previous phases, and if the most useful, ecological, and innovative results have been channelled into the production process, then little improvement can be made in this phase. In the production phase, attention should be paid to minimise emissions during manufacture – this applies to noise, smell, and pollutants. Filter technologies, insulation and choice of materials and accessories should always reflect the latest developments. Another topic is CO2 reduction: carbon neutral manufacturing should be aimed for. If this aim is not fully achieved, compensatory payments can be made to support meaningful climate-related projects.
As described in the context of production planning, the entire production process should aim to avoid pollutants, CO2, and waste. This applies to raw materials, coatings, surfaces, accessories and packaging, right through to meat-free days in the canteen, zero-energy buildings, alternative office supplies, sales and distribution, professional marketing, biodegradable advertising materials, recyclable modular trade fair stands, and electrically powered company cars. These are high standards – but in a holistic approach they must be mentioned.
Treatment of waste water and production residues should be a matter of course, the aim here being closed cycles without loss. All treated liquids and materials should be channelled back into the production cycle. If this is not possible, the aim should be to achieve upcycling with the support of specialised partner companies. This requires major efforts and possibly investments, but for high-quality long-lasting classics or innovative bestsellers it will be worthwhile.
Sustainable production means that absolutely no processing or finishing techniques should be used that pose a threat to health. For this reason, production should only take place at a verifiably certified facility, and the same applies for suppliers. It also applies to humane and safe working conditions. On this issue, we all have to take full responsibility and not, for example, export environmental crimes to Asia. Finally, a product requires a comprehensive and simple product information sheet that also deals with repairs, maintenance, and disposal.
Sixth Project Phase: Sales and Distribution
This phase begins with transport and packaging. The lighter a product is, and the smaller and more compact compared with similar products, the less energy will be needed for transport. In the age of online shopping with delivery times of 24 hours in vans whose load capacity is not optimally utilised, this is of great importance. Space-saving construction, low weight, and collapsible or foldable constructions are helpful solutions here. Packaging materials should be: as simple as possible; made of renewable materials; recyclable, reusable, biodegradable; not unnecessarily refined, laminated or varnished. It is only packaging, something that is usually thrown away – and that includes all of the energy and raw materials invested in it.
Since almost one third of all parcels purchased online are sent back, conventional distribution structures organised on a regional basis via specialist suppliers are proving to be the most ecological model. They permit short transport distances, good customer advice, testing and close inspection of products leading to a genuine purchasing decision. Fortunately, the sale of and demand for regional produce such as food are on the rise. “Made in” is an increasingly important purchasing argument, and it is being predicted that the issue of regional production will further gain in importance.
Seventh Project Phase: Use, Re-use, and Disposal
The interplay of coherent development, expert knowledge, the bold vision of an entrepreneur, and the concept of a designer can result in an outstanding product. Such a product has good chances of being appreciated by users, possibly even being handed down the generations or becoming a valuable collector’s item. Ideally, the product will become a classic and deliver the company profits over a period of decades. Products with these qualities are eco products – their energy footprint is optimal. Products whose lifecycle is necessarily limited, on the other hand, should always be recyclable, demountable, biodegradable, made of a single-material, reusable, repairable, convertible, upcyclable, and returnable. These qualities should be kept in mind when developing any product, but they are especially relevant for products with short lifecycles.
In my opinion, marketing, costs and vision or innovation should be accorded equal importance. Taken together, they determine whether a product or solution persuades and fascinates consumers – thus ensuring its potential success on the market. This is a societal challenge to which the manufacturing industry as a whole should commit itself, adopting and communicating goals such as longevity, quality, meaningful usage of raw materials and energy, reduction of consumer materials (for example detergents, paper, solvents, etc.), reduction of energy consumption, reduction of environmental impact, avoidance of pollutants and their evaporation during usage, and non-toxic waste disposal. This represents a commitment to act as healthily as possible, with a minimum of harmful substances, maximum sustainability, and responsibility for future generations.
Some may think this sounds retrograde, but this is far from true, as the result should and can be the development of environmentally friendly modes of production and combinations of materials and technology that are absolutely innovative in technical, constructional, and ecological terms on account of new solutions, the replacement of classical materials, or a new approach to construction.
We should also mention one other socioeconomic development aimed at prioritising using over owning, which goes by the name of “collaborative consumption”. In many fields, this phenomenon is giving rise to concepts for a more social and ecological society. Such sharing concepts do not pose a threat to industrial mass production; instead, they offer an interesting opportunity and should be taken into account during the development process1.