Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) for Sustainable Design

Enabling Sustainable Product Design with Product Lifecycle Management Capabilities

Sebastian Weber
CONTACT Research

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To effectively address sustainability challenges, transparency and traceability across the entire product life cycle are essential. These elements are crucial for understanding environmental impacts and identifying potential risks. Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) serves as a vital tool in achieving these goals, providing a solid data foundation for informed optimization decisions. In this context, it’s important to explore the key capabilities of PLM that support sustainable product design, delivering value to both companies and society.

Companies are exposed to an increasing number of regulations that directly impact strategy formulation and product development. Simultaneously, they must report sustainability-related information. An example of legislation is the European Green Deal [1], which aims to make Europe climate neutral. The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) [2], an extension of the obligation to report sustainability-related information, also poses challenges for companies. In addition, growing interest in sustainable solutions on the part of customers is putting pressure on established product offerings.

Against this background, companies face the challenges of implementing a green transformation. Sustainable development, as defined in the Brundtland Report of 1987 [3], is a central guiding principle: it should satisfy present needs without compromising the needs of future generations. Sustainable design focuses on solutions that create social benefits, taking into account the economic, social and ecological dimensions. These dimensions need to be carefully weighed against each other in order to balance development decisions.The economic dimension takes into account financial aspects as well as innovative business models for environmentally friendly products. The ecology dimension focuses on environmental impacts and compliance issues, including the use of environmentally friendly materials, the promotion of recycling and the reduction of emissions. At this point, reference should be made to the R-strategies (including Recycling, Reuse, Remanufacture etc.) of the Circular Economy Initiative [4]. With the social dimension, ethical aspects, human rights and social justice are included in sustainable design. Thus, at this point, sustainable design goes beyond environmental issues and financial aspects to include employee working conditions, current events and the social impacts of supply chain decisions. Adjacent approaches such as ecoDesign, which focuses on the environmental and economic components, can thus be differentiated by the social component of Sustainable Design through its focus.

CIM Database PLM as an open and scalable system for Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)

Every product goes through different phases of its life cycle: from conception and development to production, the use phase and disposal (or reuse). Especially in the early stages of product development, the foundation for a sustainable solution/development is laid, as key decisions regarding material selection, design and the manufacturing process are made in this phase. In fact, 80% of the environmental impact is already determined in this early product development [5]. This is where PLM comes into play as a systematic approach to data, document and information management that can be used to document and manage all documents that arise during the product life cycle. PLM is a fundamental tool for the implementation of Sustainable Design. PLM enables the developer to consider sustainability principles already in the design phase. This makes it possible to evaluate development decisions, i.e. various concrete design decisions, with regard to their environmental impact. Factors that offer optimization potential in this phase include energy efficiency, reduction of waste and consideration of simplified maintenance or repair or ease of disassembly for recycling of components and resources. From the concept phase to disposal, PLM enables a sound and structured consideration and optimization of products with regard to their sustainability on a “single source of truth” data basis along the life cycle.

Another central approach in this context is life cycle assessment (LCA). According to DIN EN ISO 14044, an LCA balances the compilation and assessment of the input and output flows and the potential environmental impacts of a product system during its life cycle. With an LCA, the goal can be pursued of showing the environmental aspects and potential environmental impacts associated with the product, such as resource consumption and emissions in the course of its life cycle. The information thus obtained can be translated into optimisation potentials and the design can be adapted accordingly. Data on the materials and processes used can be obtained in structured form from environmental databases. A few examples of databases are GaBi, ecoinvent and ProBas. In addition to these databases, PLM systems provide relevant product-related information for the preparation of an LCA and the associated life cycle inventory. The product structures managed in a PLM system are a valuable source of information.

The product structure managed in a PLM system, also known as the Bill of Materials (BOM), provides comprehensive documentation and proof of use for the components installed as well as their materials used. This structure enables a precise accounting of environmental impacts across the entire product range. The material properties stored in the system can be used and existing work plans can be analysed and then aggregated across the BOM. This aggregation enables, for example, the calculation of CO2 and H2O equivalents for the products to be manufactured and their variants. These valuable insights can be used as a basis for decision-making in material and subsequent supplier selection to promote sustainability in design decisions.

The materials and substances selected in the design and development process must comply with current regulations. Material compliance starts with data management, so all information about used product components with the relevant information must be available within a BOM. Material compliance” describes the fulfilment of product-related environmental requirements based on national and international (material)-specific laws and standards, as well as customer and market requirements. The growing number of product-related regulations, especially on chemical composition, poses a challenge. These include compliance with REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals) [6] and RoHS (Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances). Materials must therefore be selected in such a way that they have as little impact as possible on the environment and people, while at the same time complying with currently existing regulations. An effective PLM system not only enables seamless management of product structures and material data, but also smooth implementation of material compliance. This results in sustainable, legally compliant product design that meets environmental and regulatory requirements.

Especially for a circular economy, profound transparency regarding the properties of materials and products used is crucial. However, this information is often lost along the product life cycle due to missing or incompatible exchange formats and technologies within the value chain. The Digital Product Passport [7] can serve as a carrier of all relevant information here and thus provide a solid information basis for the circular economy. The necessary data can be obtained from the PLM system. Digital product passports can carry emission equivalents in the value chain at this point and support GHG reporting for reporting companies. One technology that can be used for information exchange is the asset administration shell. The asset administration shell is a standardised representation of a digital twin and supports the exchange of standardised digital models in a value chain.

In essence, PLM is integral for sustainable design, fostering holistic life cycle views, early impact identification, risk mitigation, and enhanced product sustainability. Material compliance ensures eco-friendly material selection, while LCA enables robust impact assessment, supported by PLM data. By leveraging these capabilities, companies can responsibly drive product development, positively impacting both environment and society.

CONTACT Research focuses on these subjects, including the Digital Product Passport (DPP) and Asset Administration Shell (AAS) [8], in their pursuit of more sustainable product development. Aggregating environmental costs across product structures also aids design optimization.

Thanks to Sven Forte and Lucas Kirsch for supporting the publication.

[1] European Green Deal: https://commission.europa.eu/strategy-and-policy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en
[2] Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD): https://finance.ec.europa.eu/capital-markets-union-and-financial-markets/company-reporting-and-auditing/company-reporting/corporate-sustainability-reporting_en
[3] Brundtland Report (1987), https://www.bmuv.de/themen/nachhaltigkeit-digitalisierung/nachhaltigkeit/strategie-und-umsetzung/nachhaltige-entwicklung-als-handlungsauftrag
[4] EU Circular Economy Initiative: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/economy/20151201STO05603/circular-economy-definition-importance-and-benefits
[5] Sustainable Product Policy: https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/scientific-activities-z/sustainable-product-policy_en
[6] REACH: https://echa.europa.eu/en/regulations/reach/understanding-reach
[7] Digital Product Passport: https://commission.europa.eu/energy-climate-change-environment/standards-tools-and-labels/products-labelling-rules-and-requirements/sustainable-products/ecodesign-sustainable-products-regulation_en
[8] Asset Administration Shell (AAS): https://www.plattform-i40.de/IP/Redaktion/DE/Downloads/Publikation/Details_of_the_Asset_Administration_Shell_Part1_V3.html

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Sebastian Weber
CONTACT Research

I'm a Research Analyst at CONTACT Research, focusing on Data&Service Ecosystems and GreenTech to drive sustainable digital innovations.