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Seminar summary: sustainable product design – the time is now

Elmeri Mehtomaa
26 Apr 2023

Over 80% of CEOs expect sustainability investments to produce improved business results in the next five years. But where should those investments be directed? Our recent study shows that early design choices account for 80% of the environmental impact of products.

On Friday, 31st March 2023, a group of senior sustainability professionals gathered in Helsinki to discuss the challenges and opportunities of sustainable product design.

Speakers from Nokia, Konecranes, Cargotec, Metso Outotec, IBM and Capgemini shared their insights with the audience on the successes they’ve experienced and how they approached the problems they faced.

We’ve rounded up the main points from each part of the seminar so you can also share in their informed wisdom.

Read on, or jump ahead to the section of most interest:

  1. How Technology Is Enabling Sustainable Product Development
  2. Model-based Systems Engineering For Sustainable Development
  3. The key takeaways from the “Challenges and benefits of sustainable product design” panel discussion

How technology is enabling sustainable product development

Christophe Telep, a Senior Product Manager at IBM Engineering, introduced us to research that collated data from over 3,000 CEOs across 28 industries and more than 40 countries on practical pathways to transformational sustainability.

The sheer importance of how sustainability is viewed in the C-suite can be seen in that it was the highest ranked answer to the question, “What are the greatest challenges for your organization over the next 2–3 years?”. When you have that level of focus on an issue, you can expect significant backing across industries to find and implement solutions.

The message was clear. Sustainability will be a leading boardroom topic at some of the biggest companies around the world for the foreseeable future, which puts pressure on product development teams to address these issues. For maximum impact, sustainability should be placed at the center of product design, where it also supports a systemic change in a company’s approach to sustainability. The question is, what can be done?

“An estimated 80 percent of environmental impacts associated with products result from decisions made at design stage. For truly systemic change to occur, sustainability must be central to product design decisions. “ 

– Capgemini Research Institute, Rethink: Why Sustainable Product Design Is The Need Of The Hour 

IBM has identified five strategic themes that underpin sustainable engineering transformation:

  • Strategic reuse
  • Scaled agile across organizations
  • Models for functional and domain engineering
  • Digital threads for quality and efficiency
  • Streamlined compliance

They believe successful transformation is led by working with an ecosystem of experts across different disciplines.

Model-based systems engineering for sustainable development

Model-based systems engineering (MBSE) is the formalized application of modeling to support system requirements, design, analysis, verification and validation activities beginning in the conceptual design phase and continuing throughout development and later life cycle phases.

It uses models instead of documents as the main artifacts of system development to reduce inconsistencies between specification, design, build, and validation.

The challenges in adopting MBSE can be put into three groups: people, process and technology.

The people group covers the cultural aspects, like resistance to change, skills or management buy-in. Process refers to the need for a common MBSE approach across the organisation, along with the governance and maintenance of that. Technology is about having the right tools and infrastructure in place and keeping them consistent and updated.

This is where Capgemini’s expertise can be of significant value. With over 4,500 experts in system engineering and an MBSE ecosystem, labs, deployment approach and academy in place, all the challenges can be met.

Capgemini has successfully deployed MBSE methodology to create environmental value for companies like Airbus and EcoPlex. Taking the Airbus example, he projects delivered on these objectives:

  • Definition of the methodology
    • Definition of the sustainability value and links with other values
    • System model embedding these values
    • Connection between MBSE & LCA models
    • Reference environmental assessment
    • Contributions of enabling systems to environmental assessment
    • Architecture Principles
    • Uncertainties management
  • Deployment with 2 cases: Assisted bike + transposition in the aeronautic domain through realistic data

MBSE can be a key brick in building your sustainability structures and processes, and Capgemini is able to guide you to success with it.

The key takeaways from the “Challenges and benefits of sustainable product design” panel discussion

In the panel discussion, a selection of senior people from industry leading companies discussed their experiences with sustainable product design.

Those sharing their insights were:

  • Jonni Ampuja, Senior Specification Engineer at Nokia
  • Päivi Koivisto, Vice President, Sustainability at Cargotec
  • Anniina Virta-Toikka, Head of Sustainability at Konecranes
  • Rashmi Kasat Majakorpi, Vice President, Head of Digital Technologies at Metso Outotec

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion.

Market demand seems to be the biggest driver, as customers rely on companies to do things in a sustainable manner. One way to tackle this is automation in the product design life cycles, as it helps speed things up so it is done more effectively.

Management in many large companies are also driving the adoption of more sustainable approaches because they can see the business opportunity there.

When products have a long lifespan and technology is always developing, the products have to be modular so they can be modernized in a proper manner. However, depending on the industry, the challenge to be sustainable can be significant.

Also, the challenge can often be related to making sustainability a part of everyday operations and decision-making. The key is having sustainability in the company strategy, and closely following KPIs related to it.

In many cases, a big challenge can also be data and materials related to sustainability. The data is not necessarily yet where it should be, and many large companies are hesitant to share it — it could even be years before it becomes the norm.

Also, more sustainable materials often cost more, and if you were to create the most sustainable option at a higher price, would customers be ready to buy it?

Thus, the key is to understand the intersection between cost and market readiness — which also comes back to data.

While there are still challenges and hiccups related to sustainability initiatives at organizations, an important point in the discussion was that sustainability is a must today, not just a nice-to-have. Companies simply need to adapt and find ways to embed sustainability into their operations.

A positive trend already seems to be that employee engagement regarding sustainability has really increased. Many people want to find out about a company’s sustainability initiatives even during the recruitment process.

It’s also noteworthy that sustainable product design is an increasing and profitable business that also reduces the carbon footprint of companies. In the future, it can easily be an extra revenue stream for many organizations — which would, in turn, make it a win for both sustainability and profits.

The key next steps for sustainable product development and design are training people and raising awareness. It isn’t only about using recycled materials, but how you make the entire industry more sustainable.

The topic of sustainable product design will thus surely continue to increase in importance at both strategic and individual levels within companies across multiple industries.


Elmeri Mehtomaa

Junior PLM Consultant

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