Design Engineering

Q&A: Sustainability driving innovation in manufacturing and design

By DE Staff   

General Sustainability Machine Building Aerospace Automotive Defense Metal Fabrication Bill S-211 circular economy circularity Edgard Ngaboyamahina regulations RTI International

Edgard Ngaboyamahina dives into the sustainability trends and regulations affecting Canadian manufacturers, from resource reduction and extending equipment life cycles to adopting a circular economy.

Edgard Ngaboyamahina

Design Engineering interviewed Edgard Ngaboyamahina, Ph.D., an innovation advisor at RTI International, about how sustainability can help drive innovation in product and process design.

He emphasizes the industry’s focus on resource reduction and extending equipment life cycles, driven by large corporations prioritizing sustainable procurement. He also explains how regulations also present a chance for companies to develop new and improved practices, and he highlighted the importance of adopting a circular economy, integrating take-back programs and addressing social responsibilities, particularly under new regulations like Canada’s Bill S-211.

Read the edited interview below:

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

Design Engineering (DE): Can you elaborate on the key sustainability regulations and market demands currently impacting manufacturers, particularly if we’re looking to a Canadian/North American audience?

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Edgard Ngaboyamahina: The industrial machinery and equipment industry is focusing on two key areas for sustainability: resource reduction and extending equipment life cycles. This focus is driven by growing pressure from customers, particularly large corporations prioritizing sustainable procurement. These customers are demanding more energy-efficient equipment, lighter materials and reduced waste throughout the production cycle.

This trend aligns with a broader shift toward a circular economy, where take-back programs and remanufacturing/reprocessing services are in high demand. These initiatives give equipment a second life and contribute to a more sustainable future.

Sustainability goes beyond environmental impact—it encompasses social responsibility, and forced labor is a major ethical violation. Canada recently passed Bill S-211, which emphasizes disclosure and transparency. Under the act, Canadian and foreign businesses subject to its provisions are required to file a public report detailing their efforts to prevent and address the risk of forced and child labor within their supply chains. While this increased transparency is crucial, industry collaborators are raising concerns about the growing burden of social audits.

(Photo credit: Getty Images)

DE: What are some of the unique challenges that companies face when trying to integrate sustainability into their products design and manufacturing processes?

Edgard: Instead of viewing sustainability-focused regulations and directives solely as challenges, companies should recognize them as opportunities to catalyze innovation. These regulations, often driven by safety or equity concerns, present a chance for companies to develop new and improved practices.

Three key opportunities emerge from the drive to meet sustainability requirements:

1. The complex and ever-evolving regulatory landscape necessitates continuous adaptation and navigation of approval processes. By developing proactive compliance strategies, companies can save costs and gain a competitive edge.

2. Disruptions like globalization, pandemics and geopolitical tensions highlight the importance of building a diversified, localized, and adaptable supply chain. This mitigates risks associated with these disruptions and ensures smooth operations.

3. Advancements in enabling technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) are pushing the boundaries of device complexity. However, these advancements need to be balanced with sustainability. Designing highly durable and long-lasting machinery can sometimes conflict with using recycled materials or lightweight designs. To overcome this challenge, manufacturers can implement sustainable design changes and cleaner manufacturing processes. While these initiatives may require initial investments in research, technology, and training, strong business cases built with the help of external partners with the right technical expertise can convince executive leadership to disburse the necessary upfront funds.

 

DE: Why do you believe it’s crucial for companies to start incorporating sustainability systems now, even if they are currently exempt from certain regulatory requirements?

Edgard: The saying goes, “Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.” Temporary exemptions exemplify this perfectly. They provide valuable time for collaborators, including manufacturers, to:

  • Prepare: Conduct research, engage with value chain partners, and understand the impact of new materials and processes.
  • Evaluate risks: Analyze potential downsides and re-think their supply chains for increased resilience.

This is crucial because the product development cycle—spanning years across various sectors—involves extensive processes. Beyond initial research and development, design, engineering, validation and regulatory approval all take significant time.

Early engagement with both upstream and downstream tiers offers a proactive advantage. By collaborating with these partners, companies can identify potential sustainability risks within the value chain: unethical labor practices, resource depletion, or end-of-life disposal challenges. Addressing these issues proactively mitigates reputational risks and production disruptions, while fostering transparency with collaborators.

 

DE: Can you explain the importance of a systems approach in achieving sustainability within the entire value and supply chain of products?

Edgard: Integrating sustainability is a long-term endeavor. Realizing these opportunities requires collaboration that extends beyond a single company. By engaging internal and external parties, companies can leverage diverse expertise and perspectives. This fosters collaboration, leading to the development of more effective and impactful sustainability initiatives.

Internally, achieving sustainability hinges on buy-in at all levels. Without a centralized effort, fragmented initiatives and siloed decision-making become prevalent. This makes consistent progress toward sustainability difficult. Securing internal funding presents another hurdle. Limited budget allocation and competing priorities for resources can hinder investment in sustainable solutions.

Externally, a shift in supply chain engagement is necessary. For example, a medical technology manufacturer introducing new sustainable materials should collaborate with sterilization service providers early on. This ensures compatibility and allows for the development of new sterilization modalities if needed. Early consultation with end-users helps manufacturers understand disposal practices, informing design choices to avoid recycling contamination.

Proactive engagement with material recovery facilities (MRFs) is also key. By mapping out access to end-of-life options with local MRFs, responsible waste management can be ensured.

 

DE: For manufacturers unsure of how to start their sustainability journey, what initial steps or frameworks do you recommend?

Edgard: The first step is to socialize the idea internally that sustainability can drive innovation in product and process design. This shared vision will foster open conversations as the company evaluates its sustainability maturity. Sustainability maturity refers to the level of integration of ESG practices throughout its operations and product lifecycle.

  • To assess their position in the sustainability space (reactive or leading), manufacturers can ask themselves these questions:
  • Does the company have a formal sustainability strategy or policy?
  • Does the company consider the environmental impact during product design and development?
  • Does the company source materials from suppliers with strong environmental and social practices?
  • Does the company influence others in the industry to adopt more sustainable practices?

Once a company understands its current state and desired future, collaboration becomes key. This can involve:

  • Identifying and joining the right industry associations or consortia.
  • Collaborating with sustainability experts.
  • Researching best practices from other companies in the same or adjacent sectors.

Our research highlights that successful sustainability collaboratives are open to various parties across the value chain. This includes competing businesses, governments, non-profits and research organizations.

Finally, seeking external guidance throughout the journey is beneficial. It can potentially save costs and time, while reducing reputational risk.

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