A new approach developed by engineers at Oregon State University could lead to more sustainable manufacturing processes.

The method uses mathematical modeling to help companies evaluate the different ways that a product could be made before production begins, taking into account economic, environmental and social factors.

“There’s a lot of demand by consumers, workers and companies who want to make progress on the sustainability of products and manufacturing processes,” said Karl Haapala, an associate professor in the OSU College of Engineering.

“There’s usually more than one way to build a part or product. With careful analysis we can identify ways to determine which approach may have the least environmental impact, lowest cost, least waste, or other advantages that make it preferable to a different approach.”

Named the “sustainable development methodology”, the six-step assessment considers energy consumption, water use, effluent discharge, occupational health and safety, operating cost and other factors to evaluate the use of different materials and manufacturing processes.

According to the researchers, comprehensive models that assess all aspects of sustainability are almost nonexistent.

“With current tools you can analyze various aspects of an operation one at a time, like the advantages of different materials, transportation modes, energy used, or other factors,” Haapala pointed out. “It’s much more difficult to consider all of them simultaneously and come out with a reasonable conclusion about which approach is best.”

To meet the need for a more comprehensive assessment, the OSU engineers created a methodology that incorporates unit process modeling and an existing technique called life-cycle inventory. This helps to show which design is the most sustainable.

“When you make decisions about what is best, you may make value judgements about what aspect of sustainability is most important to you,” Haapala explained. “But the modeling results have the potential to assist designers in performing those evaluations and in understanding the trade-offs alongside other aspects of the manufacturing process.”

Publishing their findings in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the researchers said that this approach should be applicable to a wide range of products.