Throughout our technology domains, we work on a number of common and fundamental research thrusts including:
Life-Cycle Assessment & Metrics
As stated in our mission, we need to benchmark and measure the current state as well as any improvements against certain performance criteria. We take a Triple Bottom Line perspective where we look at financial, environmental and social impacts, but what does that mean? Many research questions arise when we ask ourselves how do we best measure that over the entire life-cycle of a product, vehicle fleet, or factory? In our work, we always start from a ISO 14040 perspective when doing a Life-Cycle Assessment, but we have also performed innovative assessments using Activity-Based Costing and Environmental Management. Recurring issues are what metrics to use, where to draw the system boundaries (incl. temporal), how reliable the data is, etc. Examples of our work are the LCAs we have done on imaging systems with Kodak, packaging with Ford, and tires with Lehigh Technologies and Michelin.
Biologically Inspired Design Guidance
We also want innovative solutions that are scientifically rigorous and sustainable. This has led is to look at Nature. Nature has been sustainable for a long time. What can we learn from past and present biological systems (including extinct ones…)? Can we derive design guidelines from Nature that will result in inherently sustainable engineered systems? We believe we can and are looking into fundamental principles from biological systems that can provide new insight into engineering solutions that are inherently sustainable. For example, biological systems ranging from bacteria to whales seem to all have a metabolic energy consumption rate of less than 40 Watts per kilogram. Why? What does this mean for our engineered products? (Click here for an article on this) But we also find that blindly copying nature without considering the larger system is also not good. For example, producing self cleaning surfaces like found in the Lotus leaves may cost more water than it saves. (Click here for an article this).
Computer-Aided Product Design and Systems Life-Cycle Management Tools
Our goal is not only to give an answer to a research problem, but to also provide the tools to people and organizations that can be integrated into their practices so they can find the answers themselves the next time. As such, we spend time codifying our results in software tools. Continuously, we are facing questions around data capture, sharing, integration, and presentation. Much of our work ends up in excel spreadsheets because most people are very familiar with these and it gives a low learning curve. An example of this is the Ford Environmental Sourcing Tool (FEST) featured on our front page. We have also developed tools for assessing the remanufacturability of products. But eventually, we need something more sophisticated, like our EcoDash tool that we piloted with Interface in 2000. We also know how to create environmental and carbon footprint assessments from CAD systems like SolidEdge. Our goal is to contribute to an enterprise wide sustainability toolkit that allows many users with many different roles to share data, information and knowledge in their common pursuit of a sustainable business and society.