Can PLM save the planet?

Jun 28, 2023 | Hot Topics

Creating sustainable product lifecycles was a big-stage topic at every event I attended this spring. Presenters started their talks with dire statistics about a planet in peril and wound up encouraging us to focus on those aspects we can do something about. Using less material lowers material costs and makes shipping cheaper. Changing production to use less water is less damaging to the environment. That’s all true, but making these trade-offs requires access to data: about a material’s origin, all the way to where it was mined, and everything that happened to it on its way to becoming a part of our assembly. About shipping modality and costs. About the structural characteristics of a replacement material. About what all that water was used for. This isn’t easy to manage but is a perfect scenario for PLMish tools.

Let’s say you can affect the design of the product itself. You can choose abundant and sustainable materials, like wood, or recycled, like aluminum. You could also use reclaimed, post-industrial grades of plastic instead of virgin materials when possible. That’s a data management question (where does this material come from?) and requires simulation to ensure that the new choice is as performant as the material it replaces.

Lightweighting is a perfect example of how design and business work hand in hand, enabled by PLMish tools: a lighter part will use less material to make, less energy to transport to the buyer, and probably, less energy in operation. CAE-driven shape optimization handles the question of whether the new design is fit for purpose, and PLM helps drive material availability and manufacturability.

Flipping this context, we also want to replace materials and production processes that increase pollution with those that lower a product’s environmental footprint. One way to do that is to design products to last, using fewer resources overall. Of course, this type of redesign is likely to raise the purchase price of the product (capital expenditure, CAPEX) but lower the lifetime spend (the operating cost, OPEX). That’s typically above a designer’s pay grade but is an essential consideration as companies work to figure out how they want to act more sustainably. Making as-designed vs. CAPEX vs. OPEX cost tradeoffs requires detailed bills of material and supplier data and simulation.

You could also design the product for disassembly and reuse —assuming your product is capable of that— which means looking at the components through a different lens. We need to interrogate each purchased part to establish how (and where) it can be recycled. For example, some types of plastic are, and others aren’t, recyclable in some regions. This is a very complex analysis and data management issue. Making recycling part of the design strategy is a big step for many enterprises, but something we’re all going to have to come to grips with.

How an enterprise chooses to address the impact of its products, production processes, and service strategy varies widely — but we’re rapidly reaching the point where we can connect enough dots that products like PTC’s Creo and Siemens’ NX (each relying on their respective PLM solutions) can offer “getting greener” guidance. 

Siemens, a few weeks ago, debuted NX Sustainability Impact Reporting, described here:, which early adopters said points out choices they can make to reduce the environmental impact of their products. As a designer works on a project, she enriches the design with material, supply chain, and other data. The module uses this data to evaluate the impact of design decisions and perform what-if optioneering. Siemens says this will enable companies, over time, to create and track metrics and design-influenced key performance indicators.

PTC’s focus was slightly different, coming at this from a partnering perspective, explained here: . At LiveWorx, PTC announced that it would deepen the integration between Creo/Windchill and Ansys Granta MI, Ansys’ materials information management solution, to make it easier for designers to assess how using a specific material would affect a product’s performance, carbon footprint, and recyclability. At the same time, PTC is working with aPriori to create a workflow between Creo and aPriori’s Manufacturing Insights Platform to analyze designs for part costs, manufacturability, and environmental impact — including recommendations to meet environmental targets.

(I’m sure all the vendors are working on similar tools and partnerships — check with your favorites if not covered above. Dassault Systèmes, for example, embeds sustainability guidance into many of its specific industry offerings.)

The recommendations put forth by these solutions will ultimately become part of a normal design workflow, just like inserting fillets. You can always override or ignore the advice, but the suggestions and metrics will be put in front of you to help you weigh sustainability against cost, availability, performance, and other parameters to make the best decision for your design.

Growing emissions, the impact of rising sea levels, all of that is frightening and overwhelming. And it seems so far beyond our ability to affect. After all, I am one person in a global crisis — what can I do? Changing materials, selecting a supplier who sources differently, and finding energy leaks in our production system — all are accessible things we can actually DO that will have a huge impact if we all do them together.

So, can PLM save the planet? Not by itself. But with smart users, absolutely.

Image credit:×504