The job of designers, engineers and marketers is to continually innovate and improve products. But what makes a better product?
GE invests billions of dollars in R&D to create and bring to market new innovations that solve problems and create products that improve the cost, quality and access of healthcare. However, in a world facing depleting natural resources and a challenged environment, customers no longer judge products solely on functionality, quality and price, but also on environmental impact.
Customers in the healthcare sector are also concerned about the environmental impact of the products they buy and use. Over the past decade healthcare providers have begun to understand that the environment created by hospital buildings and equipment can have a significant impact on human well-being. Hospitals and healthcare providers, such as those involved in the global coalition Healthcare Without Harm are therefore seeking to radically reduce their impact on the environment.
GE’s healthcare customers are increasingly requesting more robust information on the environmental impacts and efficiency of the products and equipment they purchase and use. They want to be assured that each new generation of products contains fewer hazardous substances and uses fewer resources in production and use. The customers want to know which products will save energy and water over their lifetime of use, which will last longest, and which can be recycled after use.
“Designing for the environment is not just an option at this point, it is almost an expectation. We need to have a transparent and objective process to measure and communicate better process efficiently. It is very real.”
VINCENT PIZZI, GLOBAL PRODUCT MARKETING LEADER, FILTRATION, GE HEALTHCARE, LIFE SCIENCES
At GE, we believe that customers should not have to give up functionality or performance in order to choose the option with the least environmental impact. However, designing for the environment, to ensure that products meet the needs of customers and society at large, both now and for the future, requires a whole new kind of innovative thinking.
Designing for the environment cannot be about add-on features. The best time to think about recycling is not when it is time to dispose of a product, but when it is being designed. The best time to think about the energy use of a building is before it is built. And the best way to think about how to reduce a product’s environmental impact is not to take the product apart, but to break down and analyze the product life cycle impacts piece by piece.
IMPROVING THE WHOLE LIFE CYCLE OF PRODUCTS
Complex healthcare products such as medical imaging devices, information technologies and patient monitoring systems have a complex set of impacts on the environment. Designing and choosing products that are “greener” is not a straightforward process, as there is often no clear choice on the best design option or material to use. For example:
- Less toxic materials can be harder to recycle.
- Design changes that save energy in the factory may result in higher energy costs for customers.
- Reducing the weight of materials used in a product can save resources in production and transportation, but may also make the product less durable.
“Designing for the environment means you have to think about every piece of a product: who uses it, how it is used, how it is manufactured and transported and how it is disposed. You have to consider whether it has a long life or a short life; where are its biggest impacts? Designers need to learn how to think this way, to design for the environment. It is not enough just to say that a certain material is ‘environmentally friendly.’ It depends on the usage. Each product is unique.”
ÅSA PALLIN, ÅF GROUP’S ECO DESIGN CENTER
While it is often assumed that reusable products are better than those that must be thrown away, this may not be true when it comes to medical equipment, where high temperature sterilization is needed.
The Ecoassessment Center of Excellence at GE Global Research in Niskayuna, New York, is developing a suite of ecoassessment tools to help GE engineers assess these difficult choices across the whole life cycle of a product. The team uses established technology and rigorous methodologies that involve scrutiny through peer review by independent experts. In some cases the GE engineers collaborate with external organizations to gain knowledge in areas that require unique domain expertise.
MAKING WAVES THROUGH LIFE CYCLE ASSESSMENT
In 2007, GE acquired WAVE Biotech, a company that had developed unique bioreactors to generate drugs, vaccines and antibodies in disposable “cellbags” rather than using traditional and more expensive stainless steel tanks and piping. Using single-use components and an innovative mix-in-the-bag process eliminates the need for the traditional energy- and water-hungry processes of steam sterilization and mechanical stirring. In this way, the WAVE Bioreactor System could reduce customers’ annual energy consumption by at least 43 percent and water consumption by over 66,000 liters per year, compared to the traditional process. However, single-use products can also have some negative environmental impacts, as they result in use and disposal of more materials.
The balance of environmental impacts between the traditional and new approaches was far from clear. According to some of the bioreactor customers, GE’s survey found that 6 percent thought that disposables were more environmentally friendly, while 49 percent thought they could be environmentally harmful.
“The perception was that disposables are environmentally not a good thing, but there was really no data. We needed to do a comprehensive study. Our commitment was to be honest, regardless of whether the answer was positive or negative. We wanted it to be a data driven process, with hard numbers to give people a sound basis to work from.”
RICHARD FERRARO, SENIOR PRODUCT MANAGER, WAVE PRODUCTS GROUP, GE HEALTHCARE
Therefore the GE Healthcare team, working with the Ecoassessment Center of Excellence at GE Global Research, initiated a study of the full life cycle impacts of the WAVE Bioreactor versus more traditional equipment, following the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards for life cycle assessment. The results are still being finalized, but early indications state that the disposable option saves energy and water over the full life cycle of the product, even when the manufacturing of disposable components is factored in.
Not every new product needs the full life cycle assessment treatment. This kind of detailed evaluation is typically used to help crack the most complex design challenges—where there are difficult trade-offs, or where customers need assessment of product impacts. In other cases, GE engineers are able to use simpler tools to identify environmental impacts and take environmental factors into account early on in the product design process.
BEYOND PRODUCTS: HEALTHY HOSPITALS
Healthcare providers are broadening their scope of environmental impact opportunities, not simply to understand whether one product is better than another in environmental terms, but to identify additional opportunities for saving energy and resources within their own operations. Hospitals are therefore starting to organize “green teams” to consider every aspect of their environmental impacts. For GE, this means leveraging the breadth of its business portfolio to determine new solutions to improve water and lighting technologies, systems controls and electrical distribution and energy efficiency.
GE teams have been working with hospital partners on “energy treasure hunts” to search out opportunities to improve energy efficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce costs. Magnetic resonance (MR), for example, is one of the most energy intensive pieces of equipment in a hospital, and by simply installing a more energy efficient MR a hospital could save approximately $5,800 (USD) compared to GE’s previous generation systems under normal operating conditions at an electricity rate of 10 kwl. In addition, GE’s Digital X-ray systems can increase productivity and conserve resources compared to analog X-ray systems. For example, a hospital in the Central South found that one GE Digital X-ray system provides the same throughput as the two analog systems it replaced, while saving over $90,000 (USD) in productivity, material and processing costs annually.
GE also works with hospitals to take back used medical equipment, which can be refurbished and resold. This not only saves materials from going into a landfill, but also makes life-saving equipment affordable and available. Where equipment cannot be reused it is sent to one of GE’s demanufacturing plants. The old equipment can be split apart into modules, components and materials, with 94 percent being repurposed, reused for spare parts or recycled.
HEALTHCARE AND BEYOND: DESIGN FOR A HEALTHY PLANET
As the pressure increases to become more and more efficient, it will become more important than ever to find new opportunities to be greener using smarter design solutions.
In healthcare, this will mean redesigning not just products or hospital buildings but also every aspect of healthcare delivery systems. For example, virtual healthcare can reduce costs and the need for energy intensive buildings and transportation, while enabling patients to be monitored and treated at home. Hospitals are also looking at the food they provide to patients, both because good nutrition is fundamental to the healing process, and also because hospital food catering supply chains contribute to local and global environmental impacts. Hospitals are also developing local transport plans, working to ensure that the facility is accessible by public transportation which is part of a campaign to promote healthy cities that encourage walking or cycling.
Customers in the healthcare sector are particularly interested in design for the environment, because they understand the critical link between the health of the environment and the health of people. However, safer chemicals, renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies are needed in every industry, not just healthcare. At GE, designing for the environment is becoming a fundamental engineering element to provide the customer with what they want and need while promoting a greener world.
The challenge of measuring, assessing and communicating complex environmental impacts will continue to escalate, and so will the need for refined tools and protocol. One area where this is being addressed is in the development of more standardized protocols for assessing the greenhouse gas footprint of a product across its whole life cycle. As part of this effort, GE is road testing the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative’s draft standard for analyzing and communicating a product’s greenhouse gas emissions footprint up and down the supply chain from materials acquisition through production to end of life. This new standard is a joint initiative by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
These kinds of initiatives are helping to develop the crucial scientific and technical basis for embedding environmental considerations into product design and procurement.
“Collaborating on standards development is crucial to developing robust, common methods for different companies to perform these assessments using the same protocols. It really feels like we are embarking on the second wave of environmental rigor. It is a new way of thinking by governments, businesses, regulators and NGOs.”
BILL FLANAGAN, ECOASSESSMENT LEADER, GE GLOBAL RESEARCH
There is clearly more work to be done—from equipment and hospital design, to healthcare systems. Life cycle assessment makes clear that the impacts of products can only be understood and addressed in the context of the way they are produced and used. Innovation that goes beyond better products and systems requires a deeper collaboration between producers, suppliers, purchasers and users, as well as supportive policies and regulation.
Accelerating progress depends on all stakeholders having the ability to assess and communicate the impacts of their products and processes on ecosystems, and finding ways of internalizing the value of ecosystems into the way they think about and account for the value they create. GE is in the early stages of developing and implementing design for environment tools such as life cycle assessment, but believes this will become a fundamental way of doing business in the future.