Influencing the mainstream: Interview with Sarah Krasley, Autodesk

What are the challenges involved in taking the 'green' message out to the mainstream? Justin Cunningham asks Autodesk's sustainable manufacturing program manager.

There are not many people who make it their job to influence and encourage engineers from all sectors, countries and walks of life to work smarter and more efficiently. But this is a normal day for Sarah Krasley, sustainable manufacturing program manager at Autodesk. Broadly speaking, Krasley's role is to help the engineering community design and manufacture what might be called 'green', 'eco-conscious' or 'sustainable' products, services and functions. In reality, though, she believes it is just about making good decisions. "The products and material decisions you make right now require water, energy and other resources," says Krasley. "Even if you are not looking at it from an altruistic perspective, from a cost perspective you have got to deal with this stuff. There are going to be billions of new people in the world economy and if you don't have a proactive strategy for finding materials that are not impactful from a resource perspective, your cost of doing business is just going to go up." The issue of sustainable engineering is complex, often counter-intuitive and always evolving. However, the more information engineers have, the more up to date it is and the more quickly it can be accessed, the more effectively it can be leveraged by decision makers. "Every decision that a designer makes 'locks in' a material," says Krasley. "That locks in the supply chain, which locks in manufacturing processes, which locks in the way a facility is laid out, which locks in the type of transportation needed to take the product from one place to another. The designers are incredibly important, as they are the ones that are directing all that." An example of where the best intentions can go wrong comes from the automotive sector. Full lifecycle assessments of some hybrid vehicles reveal that the manufacturing processes and materials used are actually more environmentally impactful than the assembly of traditional fuel injection engines. Another instance of this comes from NASA, which, while building a satellite, opted for a type of tin solder over lead in an effort to be more health- and eco-conscious. Once in orbit, however, the satellite did not perform as well as it would have had it been lead solder and it eventually had to be pre-maturely decommissioned and brought back down to Earth. "What that illustrates is the idea of looking at a material in context," says Krasley. "Is it going to require less energy, water or fewer processes to form that material into the component that you want it to become in your assembly and, critically, how will it perform in service? "It is a vexing issue for many engineers who are trying to do the right thing to improve the environmental footprint of their products. Really all they are doing is choosing different materials and different ways of designing. But, when it is looked at in context from a 'whole systems' perspective, the environmental performance is not as good as first hoped." To help engineers make sense of the complexity of sustainable design and manufacture, Autodesk has implemented an 'EcoMaterials Advisor' within its CAD software. The point of it is to act as a quick guide to let engineers know broadly the cost and embedded water, CO2 and energy consumption so that they can use this information during early design to make informed decisions about what is going to work, and more critically, what is not. "We want the EcoMaterials advisor to illuminate different material opportunities for our users and then allow them the opportunity to perform simulation and testing to determine whether or not that material is something that would be a good swap for them," says Krasley. "So if you use a specific grade of vinyl, you have the opportunity to experiment virtually with different grades within that family. There may be subtle nuances in processing, or impacts that you have not thought of that would change the carbon footprint and how much energy it will take to produce." Part of Krasley's job is to encourage engineers and manufacturers to think longer-term about the products they are designing or making and think in terms of holistic design – a concept that, while often dismissed as a buzzword, is based on a sound premise. "There are many things designers can do that are straightforward 'low-hanging fruit' opportunities," says Krasley. "For example, look at ways to reduce the number of types of fasteners inside your assembly or opportunity for pieces to snap together to reduce the amount of time it takes to disassemble a product at the end of its life, so it is easier to recover those materials and get them back in to the supply chain for another product." With the help of Autodesk's software tools, Krasley is determined to help to inform the engineers of tomorrow to get them working smarter. She says: "This is an important aspect of sustainability. A company can have the best intentions and perhaps use a natural material, but if those are not cost-competitive materials they are not going to stay in business and therefore they are not really sustainable. So it is important to consider things in context."