Can Sustainable Design Also Maximize Profits?

Last week I was an invited speaker at an executive roundtable event titled “The Future of Manufacturing”, hosted by former Vice-President Al Gore  in the downtown London offices of Generation Investment LLC, an investment firm focused on “Sustainable Investing”.  What a treat it was to meet the former Vice President of the United States, a Nobel Prize winner and accomplished author.

This small group of about 30 industry experts from companies like Tesla, Nike, BMW, and Unilever convened for a full day of discussion on topics related to manufacturing improvements, advanced manufacturing methods like robotics and additive manufacturing, and design for sustainability and recyclability.  After a series of rapid-fire case studies, the conversation was both structured and unstructured, with the latter being the more interesting.

Given the diversity of the attendees, the wide-open nature of the topic, and frankly, my own skepticism, I was at first a little hesitant about the merit of such an event.  However, the situation enabled a conversation that was exhilarating, a healthy debate over important topics and some shared experiences that probably would never have happened had we been allowed to remain in our respective ‘comfort zones’.  At times the exchange felt like a weekend bonfire chat with a group of intelligent friends: deep, open, and mostly optimistic.

I was particularly impressed with Mr. Gore during the day, not in a ‘star-struck’ kind of way, but as a technologist and thinker.  An impressive orator, of course, he opened and closed the day with strong speeches, and actively led the conversation during the day.  He was at times idealistic (which I loved) about the potential of getting a group of smart people together to solve problems.  At other times, he lamented the situation our world is in, both the lack of global attention to sustainability and where our climate is headed, and in the public policy that is often heavy with inertia and not nearly dynamic enough to respond to change as rapidly as necessary.

The most exciting part of the discussion for me was the active brainstorm on how to connect design to manufacturing to improve sustainability, as well as realizing the world’s economic potential, including regionalized manufacturing.  Advancements in lightweight design to reduce material consumption (my topic), improvements in lean manufacturing, even reducing inventory – all have huge potential to increase profitability, while still positively impacting the environment in a significant way.  Mr. Gore asked me for a clarification when I boldly stated “there is nothing ‘greener’ than OptiStruct!”.  To which I replied, “R”-educe is more important than “R”-euse or “R”-ecycle, as you are taking the material out of the sustainability equation before it goes in, eliminating processing, transport, fuel economy penalties and end-of-life issues before they appear.  Al seemed satisfied with this response, so I exhaled.

The topic of monetizing sustainable design dominated the conversation, among members of the investment community as well as those of us hailing from the product development and manufacturing domain.  I honestly felt optimistic that the answer to this question, in the long-term, will be “yes”.  Whether from a compulsion of market forces, or incentives from government action on climate control, the very fact that Al Gore co-owns an investment firm focused on this duality is itself encouraging.  It will be nice to see a day that “green” can also make “green”, and Altair will certainly do its part to make this concept a reality.

P.S. The funniest quip of the day was when Al Gore told the story of how his partner, David Blood, a Pontiac, MI native, had to talk him out of naming the firm “Blood and Gore”.

Jeff Brennan
Jeff Brennan

About Jeff Brennan

Since joining Altair in 1992 as an engineering consultant, Jeff has served a variety of technical and business roles, including program manager for Altair’s optimization products, director of sales and marketing, and vice president of the HyperWorks® business unit from 2001-2009. He was responsible for the creation of OptiStruct® software at Altair and managed the product during its early years. Jeff's technical background includes specialties in biomechanics and optimization. He received his engineering education from the University of Notre Dame, Northwestern University, and the University of Michigan.