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Centre for Operational Excellence (COPE)

Faculty of Economics and Business
Projects Sustainable product development

Sustainable product development

While many manufacturing companies would like to develop sustainable products, they find it difficult to put arrangements in place for it. Together with six companies, two COPE scientists will focus their attention on dissecting the concept of sustainability, making it quantifiable and embedding it in R&D projects.

Scientific research gives a boost to sustainable product development

An increasing number of businesses are faced with problems in society such as an increasing shortage in raw materials and higher energy prices. By the same token, consumers increasingly demand sustainable products which cause less waste and lower CO2 emissions. Slowly but surely, this demand by consumers is penetrating further into the supply chain and, sooner or later, every company will be confronted with the question how it should put arrangements in place for corporate social responsibility.

This means that the Dutch manufacturing industry is being faced with the challenge to develop sustainable products. A number of companies are doing this already, others are still at the threshold. They have one thing in common, though: they are struggling with the question how to put arrangements in place for sustainable product development. Many companies are more than willing to start, nevertheless, they cannot get this off the ground.

The research project Development of Sustainability Metrics, DoSyM (Ontwerp van Metrieken voor Duurzaamheid) aims to find answers to the question in what way companies can put flesh on the bones of sustainable product development. During three years, two scientific researchers and six manufacturing companies will focus their attention on the dissection of the concept of sustainability, making it quantifiable and embedding it in R&D projects. The fact that industry association FME-CWM and Vanenburg Software are participating in the project must ensure that the outcomes and the tools required are safeguarded and dispersed.

Alternatives for life cycle assessment

Traditionally, the environmental impact of a product was documented by conducting a life cycle assessment (LCA). This assessment not only involves analysing the product's design and manufacture, but also its use and the handling of the discarded product. Therefore, an LCA cannot be carried out before a product is put into use which, by definition, means that it is unfit for use in sustainable product development. Another reason for this is that a life cycle assessment is often based on assumptions which, as a matter of fact, are challenged in sustainable product development, for instance, the quantity of heavy metals which have been used or the amount of energy that is used. The aim of this research is to develop alternatives for the life cycle assessment with a view to sustainable product development. The research project comprises three phases:

  1. assessment of problem areas and literature study.
  2. development of new metrics and models.
  3. safeguarding and dispersal of lessons learned and outcomes.

Among other things, the research aims to answer the question posed by companies which sustainability aspects they will be able to influence during product development. The next question will be whether the resulting product is still makeable and saleable. The reason for this question is that most businesses still find it very difficult to weigh up how far they can go with sustainability without jeopardising their company's profitability. On the other hand, there are examples of companies which have improved their profitability because of sustainability.

New energy and inspiration

By participating in this research project, the six manufacturing companies mentioned before will gain access to existing and new scientific knowledge in the field of sustainable product development. With the help of input from students who are supervised by the scientific researchers, they can find out how to incorporate sustainability in their product development programmes. Participation in this research helps to remove obstacles which stand in the way of sustainable product development. Indeed: the attention paid to the subject incites new energy and inspiration in those who participate and thus causes sustainable product development to gain momentum.

Besides that, new training courses and workshops are being developed in cooperation with FME-CWM. This will help other companies as well to familiarise themselves with the new findings in the field of sustainable product development and, perhaps, to put them into practice, for example, in the form of a step-by-step plan.

Substudy: where does the demand for sustainable products come from?

All six manufacturing companies strongly feel the need to become more sustainable. When they start developing a new product, though, investments in sustainability are difficult to defend. Researcher Kristian Peters said: 'While companies are strongly willing to start developing sustainable products, a number of the participating companies encounter barriers such as only a limited number of rules and regulations which force them to do so, unclear or non-existent customer demand for sustainable products and lack of competitors who distinguish themselves in the field of sustainability. These are the very reasons that companies generally use to justify their new product development projects.'

Mr Peters has based his conclusions on several interviews with the R&D managers of the companies involved and on a number of workshops which were held to share and check his findings. ‘The alternative is that companies draw up and implement a strategy for sustainable product development themselves. The first thing they will have to do in that case is have a critical look at what opportunities their existing business model has to offer in that respect. Then, they will have to investigate how new business models may help improve product sustainability. This affects far more business aspects than just product development, though. It means that they will have to consider new revenue models, return logistics solutions and extensive cooperation with other chain partners. That is the challenge they will have to face.’

Mr Peters decided that he wanted to continue his research into what works and what does not. 'The good news is that there are multiple ways to make products sustainable and an increasing number of companies have proved that sustainable product development pays off.’

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