The POV Dispatch is our internal newsletter where our Corporate Strategy & Engagement team initiates an employee dialog about the big ideas that are important to Autodesk. Occasionally I share some of the dispatch articles with It's Alive In The Lab readers. Today's submission comes from Susan Gladwin. Susan works on Sustainability at Autodesk. Her POV article touched on Autodesk's clean tech program.
If you want to see people and companies who are truly on the front lines in the fight against climate change, clean tech startups are a great place to start. These companies, many of which are based in the San Francisco Bay Area, are focused on not only building successful businesses, but ones dedicated to complex and risky products and services that are actual examples of both invention and innovation. This requires them to lean heavily on technology, and design technology in particular, and that's where Autodesk plays a role.
Autodesk Clean Tech Partner Program
The Autodesk Clean Tech Partner Program provides selected startups with up to $150,000 worth of design software for a nominal fee. The software lets them build digital prototypes of their ideas, to design, visualize, and simulate their products under real-world conditions. Two of the best recent examples of companies in this program are Hydrovolts and Pi Mobility.
Hydrovolts joined the Autodesk Clean Tech Program in 2009, and Pi Mobility joined in 2010 after hearing about it from colleagues in the clean tech community.
Hydrovolts, based in Seattle, Washington, is developing micro hydropower turbines, and used Autodesk technology as a way to fundamentally change the engineering culture at its company and shift it in a more environmentally minded direction.
Pi Mobility, based in Sausalito, California, is a manufacturer of electric bicycles. Their key innovation was to use our technology as a way to create a bike that lasts for decades--and to move away from the short term, "throwaway" mentality and culture that permeate many electric bike companies.
Both these companies were faced with variations on the challenge inherent in sustainable innovation: how to create lasting value to achieve positive impact while taking into account the larger system and stakeholders therein. And as startups, they needed a way to do this with limited means and time.
Hyrdovolts + Autodesk Eco Materials Adviser
When Burt Hamner, founder and CEO of Hydrovolts, decided that he would focus his technology development on micro hydropower turbines that could run in irrigation canals and water aqueducts, he ran into several challenges. First, nobody had successfully done this before--there was no precedent. Secondly, whatever type of product he developed would have to be an environmentally sound product, because the first thing people want to know before you drop something into their water system is whether or not it will contaminate their water.
A "green" mindset was key -- but how to best infuse that mindset into engineering efforts?
"I believe that most intelligent people feel some sense of environmental consciousness," says Hamner. "But on a day-to-day basis, how is that put into practice? If you're an engineer trained to do design and engineering in a specific field, you're almost never also trained to think about all the environmental implications of what you're doing. That's what environmental engineering degrees are for, right? As a result, the vast majority of the design engineers out there have no understanding of the environmental impact of their designs. I wanted to change that in my company."
For Hydrovolts, the way to start the transformation of its engineering efforts toward a more environmentally minded direction was through the introduction of Autodesk Inventor Eco Materials Adviser into its workflow. Eco Materials Adviser is a tool within Autodesk Inventor, mechanical design and engineering software that lets engineers run real-time eco impact analyses on options for product materials, and understand how different choices can affect its CO2 footprint, embedded energy, water usage, RoHS (Restriction on Hazardous Substances), food compliance, and end-of-life behavior, traded off against cost. Any engineer, green or otherwise, can use this capability to perform valuable analysis. No significant training is necessary because the engineer operates the tool from within their familiar 3D modeling environment.
"Being able to perform stress and force analysis on individual components enables us to drive down costs and more efficiently and accurately estimate lifecycles," says Michael Layton, COO of Hydrovolts. "Using the Eco Materials Adviser, we are also able to select more ecologically friendly materials and continue to reduce the carbon footprint of the products we take to market."
Hamner adds, "I have long felt that too many organizations make the mistake of trying to make an engineer into an environmentalist. It's a much better idea to make an engineer into a better engineer, by giving them good design tools -- and then the environmental benefits will be a part of that."
Pi Mobility vs. the "Throwaway" Bicycle Mentality
Meanwhile, Marcus Hays, CEO of Pi Mobility, saw a different problem that needed tackling: the "throwaway" mentality in the electric bike industry.
"When I first encountered electric bicycles, most models were imported from a variety of countries, especially China," said Hays. "The bikes typically relied on an injection molding manufacturing process, which produced parts made of a variety of thermoplastics. While initially pleasing in appearance, the plastic parts raised questions of reliability and tended toward unsightly discolorations and dangerous cracks. All too often, those bikes were simply tossed on the junk heap. As an advocate for electric bikes, I felt these problems had to be solved."
Pi Mobility's way to change the "throwaway" mentality of the electric bike industry was to add residual value to a product that typically had not been vested with any residual value. They did this by building a bike that is designed and engineered to last for 30, 40, or even 50 years. It is not a "throwaway" bike.
"Rather than rely on brittle plastics for a multitude of parts, we used Autodesk Inventor design software to create an elegant, solitary arch of recycled aluminum for the Pi Cycle's frame," says Hays. "Not only does recycled aluminum last considerably longer than plastic, the batteries and electronic components reside safely within the aluminum tube rather than an injection-molded plastic battery enclosure, better protecting them from the elements and providing more efficient heat dissipation."
Perhaps best of all, the single tube used in the PiCycle's "battery agnostic design" means they can conceivably handle any battery or chemical process that produces electricity, allowing for easy upgrades in the future. "Changes to the design can be embedded very rapidly," says Hays. The team was able to create a 3D digital prototype within three weeks of receiving the software that enabled them to see that they could change the diameter of their tube and reduce costs significantly.
All of this "future proofing" adds residual value to the PiCycle - a complete 180 from the "planned obsolescence" model that most bike companies follow.
As the examples of Hydrovolts and Pi Mobility demonstrate, technology can be an enabler for companies to change the culture of their companies towards a more long-term and sustainable viewpoint -- a goal that is perfectly in synch with Autodesk's vision of helping people imagine, design, and create a better world.
Fostering clean technology is alive in the lab.