Saving the Earth by cutting carbon

In product lifecycle management, sustainability often comes down to two things – environmental compliance and helping to reduce a product’s carbon impact, as Will Stirling discovers


In a global energy management business, it pays to know how environmentally efficient your products are. French electronics and automation group Schneider Electric has invested heavily in product lifecycle management (PLM) and lifecycle assessment (LCA) software and processes to better measure both its products’ environmental compliance and their carbon kick.

“For lifecycle assessment, we developed several indicators to highlight how a given product is characterised from an environmental perspective in the different phases of its lifecycle – manufacturing, distribution, installation, use and end of life,” says Alain Digeon, global supply chain, senior vice president environment, at Schneider Electric. “For each of these phases, we have key performance indicators that indicate the impact on the air, water and the planet of this specific product.”

The real value proposition in PLM for multi-product companies like Schneider is in environmental compliance. It manufactures tens of thousands of product variants and sells globally. When an environmental law changes in one country, it must implement the change for those products in that jurisdiction quickly without modifying all its products. PLM assists here by partitioning product classes and raising flags if individual components do not comply with regulations.

By implementing Windchill Product Analytics from PTC, Schneider subsidiary APC reduced the cost of compliance by 80 per cent over its previous, manual data-collection and product analysis methods. One factor was in making data entry and analyses processes more “cookbook”, enabling APC to outsource routine tasks, freeing engineers to focus on identifying compliance risks and solving problems.

We calculated that 70 per cent of the carbon in our products was already embedded in the raw materials

Where reducing carbon is the driver, US flooring solutions company Interface takes some beating. It has spent the last 17 years analysing the environmental impact of its carpet tiles and developing products with super-green credentials. Firstly, it calculated that just 10 per cent of the impact of its products related to the electricity and gas used in its factories.

“We calculated that 70 per cent of the carbon in our products was already embedded in the raw materials,” says European sustainability director Ramon Arratia. “When you realise it’s not caused by your factories, you can do something purposeful about it.” And they did.

The calculations were provided by LCA software from GaBI and SimaPro, which calculates the environmental impact of raw materials. These measure the carbon dioxide equivalent by weight, the sulphate equivalent (acidification) and phosphate equivalent (eutrophication) embedded in the materials. PLM software is also used to help visualise the engineering within each of 20 product lines.

Nylon is the worst culprit, accounting for 70 per cent of carbon content, but yarn was also expensive on carbon and money. Three solutions provided three new product lines. Interface developed a product that uses about 50 per cent less yarn for the same performance. Its Biosfera product, introduced two years ago, includes 100 per cent recycled yarn and “backing”, another material, recycled from fishing nets and industrial waste. It is Interface’s highest growth product.

The final solution was to replace nylon with a biological substitute. Fotosera, launched in July, contains mainly bio-based yarn made from castor oil produced in rural communities. It’s a tangible example of PLM making a definitive contribution to carbon reduction.