It was hard to be in New York City last month and not be confronted with awareness-raising efforts regarding the risks from climate change. The People’s Climate March on Sept. 21, the Flood Wall Street protests, the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting and the United Nations Climate Summit all showed a renewal of interest in taking measures to help slow global warming.
Many people asked me, “Did you march?” Each time, I shook my head no and said with a smile, “I deserve a weekend too!” While I was not in the streets, I am still a part of the large-scale change that is necessary to minimize the effects of a quickly warming planet; I’ve just chosen a different lever.
For more than a decade, I’ve worked to help corporations develop more sustainable practices, with much of that time devoted to helping people connect their activities to the environmental effects that result from them. As the senior sustainable manufacturing lead at Autodesk, I work to make greener product design and factory layout easy, insightful and cost-effective. Autodesk’s software is used in more than 160 countries, so we have access to a wealth of data that help designers scale up changes quickly. This means I have a privileged window into how companies not only set but also meet their greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets.
The manufacturers I work with often have goals like “We will reduce our overall GHG emissions by 20 percent by 2020.” And because a substantial part of the United States’ GHG emissions are associated with electricity from heating, cooling and manufacturing — according to the World Resource Institute’s climate analysis indicators tool, which tracks GHG emission data — we help them identify ways they can make their factories and buildings more efficient and reduce the GHG footprint of the products they produce.
Many of the companies I work with are traded publicly, which means they must balance the creation of shareholder value with reducing their GHG footprint and mitigating risk. A common strategy is to find ways to lower operating costs while reducing emissions.
For example, I work with many automotive companies to look for ways to make their vehicles lighter by constructing them with new materials such as carbon fiber, composites or aluminum. They do this for multiple reasons — to adhere to new vehicle emission regulations, to lower the cost to consumers and, on the technological front, to lower the obstacle of moving a lot of weight with battery power as they make progress toward electrified vehicle fleets. It’s the combined benefits that help make it a viable strategy for these companies to pursue.
An example of this is the Ford F-150 pickup truck, which made waves earlier this year because it used aluminum instead of steel for some significant pieces of the body. There were other sustainable design features of the truck, but if we isolate just this improvement, we see a decrease in weight of about 700 pounds per vehicle. This might not seem like much, but consider that the F-150 sold about 650,000 units last year; that scales to some significant emission reductions.
The desire to create lighter products extends beyond the automotive sector. On top of manufacturers’ experimentation with new materials, they are exploring ways to 3-D-print components made from multiple materials and in shapes that were once impossible to achieve with older technologies such as injection molding or milling. Because 3-D printing removes the need for a designer to bolt, weld or glue things together in order to make complex shapes, the scope of how something can be designed (to be more efficient) widens tremendously.
For example, my colleagues in Autodesk’s research group are busy building a new cloud-based computational design tool, code-named Project Dreamcatcher. A designer can input various constraints — such as material, cost, forces on the object and durability — and the system will consider an almost infinite number of forms that could solve the problem. When researchers used it to brainstorm the design of a 3-D-printed stool, the system delivered ideas for the stool’s design that reduced material by 70 percent. It was just as strong but used much less material and weighed a lot less. The implications for product design, as you might guess, are huge.
Other companies I work with look for ways to lower operating costs by reducing the amount of energy needed to operate their factories. In many cases, heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) load is the most significant energy drain in factories, and experimenting with different ways to cool or heat the air in a factory can not only save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also improve worker morale and cut operating costs. Many HVAC systems are laid out poorly. They blitz workers with freezing cold air in parts of the factory that do not need cooling and, conversely, do not effectively cool areas with machines generating a lot of heat. By creating a digital model of the factory and modeling the way the air moves around it, my team can easily plot the location of machines and factory doors and experiment with the orientation of ducts and diffusers so that its systems can run more efficiently. We also work with manufacturers to see which exterior surfaces of the factory get the most sunlight and are best for solar panels, which would bring a non-GHG-intensive electricity source to manufacturing processes.
These examples are not nearly as extreme as Flood Wall Street’s appeals to throw out capitalism altogether. But finding business-friendly ways to mitigate climate change and enabling corporations to implement change on a large scale are key to attaining significant greenhouse gas reductions. This change is slower and quieter, but over the past decade, I’ve watched it build on itself and am still convinced that my time is best spent marching to my desk.
The views expressed above are solely those of the author and are not those of Autodesk Inc., its officers, directors, subsidiaries, affiliates, business partners or customers.