Digital World: The greening of product design

Autodesk sees itself as an agent of change, fostering what it hopes will become a revolution in environmentally sustainable design.

ERWIN BURTH 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Autodesk)
(photo credit: Courtesy of Autodesk)
Autodesk is one of those software companies that seems like it has been around forever (actually, the company was established in 1982, which is kind of “forever” in computer-era terms). Autodesk is know for its 2- D and 3-D design software that allows users to develop models in architecture, manufacturing and even entertainment, with a program called AutoCAD its most famous product.
Autodesk is a worldwide company, too, and last year it pitched its tent here in Israel, acquiring a company called PlanPlatform, now an online interface for Autodesk CAD tools.
All that is well and good, being that without CAD and design tools, the world would certainly be a messier place. And it’s not exactly news that Autodesk is still chugging along, with 10 million customers using its products in 800,000 different companies and organizations.
What is news, though, is that Autodesk is also a “green” company, one dedicated to making the world not only neater from a design point of view, but cleaner from an environmental point of view. How “green” is Autodesk? So green that the company is giving out $150,000 worth of software to partners in its Autodesk Clean Tech Partner Program – for only fifty bucks! That’s a serious investment for any company, and it’s a sign that Autodesk is serious about keeping the environment clean and willing to put its money where its mouth is. Indeed, Autodesk made going green a priority even before it started its Clean Tech Partner Program, says Erwin Burth, a top sales development manager at Autodesk in Europe who is helping to coordinate the program.
“The buildings we work in are optimized for sustainability – using less energy and saving resources,” he says. “We have a culture of teleconferencing, so we reduce the number of trips company workers need to take for meetings and the like. And we can actually see how we are reducing our carbon footprint using these measures.”
But that’s all small potatoes (okay, maybe medium potatoes) compared to the Clean Tech Partner Program. With that, Burth says, the company sees itself as an agent of change, fostering what it hopes will become a revolution in environmentally sustainable design, with manufacturers and designers using Autodesk tools to build cleaner running cars, appliances and buildings, using fewer resources but getting the most out of them.
“Usually, when a designer or manufacturer works on a product, they concentrate on how nice it will look and how smoothly it will function – not how much impact it, or the means and material needed to make it, will have on the environment,” Autodesk executive Mike Lowenhielm says. “With a little effort they can also build things with sustainability in mind. Our software, which is used for digital prototyping, can help designers come up with products that will be friendlier to the environment.”
For example, Lowenhielm says, a designer working on a cellphone might be able to use more environmentally sustainable materials in his design. Besides being full of plastic, which takes eons (almost) to decompose, many phones are made with rare-earth elements, the extraction of which is often very damaging to the environment.
“Our software offers an ecological material database, which supplies specifics on how material is used and its impact – from extraction to manufacture to disposal – on the environment,” he says. “A designer can substitute other materials that are more eco-friendly and see it it would be practical to use those materials.”
The database, along with many other tools, help companies to design products that will be usable, functional, well-designed and environmentally sustainable, Burth says.
Companies that are accepted into the program get access to many of Autodesk’s design tools that would otherwise cost tens of thousands of dollars – for next to nothing. The program is limited to innovative start-ups that Autodesk hopes will grow and succeed – and, of course, eventually buy more licenses for their new hires.
“But we aren’t in this to sell stuff,” Lowenhielm says. “As part of the program the company gets a full, no-strings-attached commercial license. They can maintain it with us when the first round of maintenance and update is completed, but they don’t have to.
We’re really in this to make the world a more pleasant place.”
Already the program has members in Europe, the United States and Israel, where several companies have applied and are already participating.
Among the Israeli companies in the program is HydroSpin, based in Kibbutz Lavi in the North.
HydroSpin has developed a unique generator that produces microenergy from the flow of water inside distribution pipes – sort of like a mini-hydroelectric plant! The HydroSpin generator creates enough power to support lowenergy devices throughout the water network, such as sensors, probes and transmission devices (GPRS). It costs significantly less than existing solutions and lasts for a much longer time with minimal maintenance required.
HydroSpin CEO Gabby Czertok said much of the design work for the product was done using Autodesk’s tools, and he greatly appreciated being part of the program that allowed his company to develop such an innovative and unique solution.
HydroSpin’s success is the kind of thing Autodesk likes to see, Burth says, adding: “There are a lot of companies that have great ideas, but they don’t have great tools. As a result, they are unable to do their best work possible. That’s one reason we started the Clean Tech Partner Program: to give environmentally conscious companies with great ideas the tools they need to bring their innovative products to market as soon as possible.”