Engineering The Carbon Neutral Future
CEO of Season Group, a vertically integrated Electronics Manufacturing Services (EMS) provider, and SG Wireless, a full-stack IoT provider.
In May this year, the U.K. Met Office researchers revealed that there is a near fifty-fifty chance that Earth’s temperatures will go 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels in the coming five years. This finding reiterates the urgent need to reduce our waste and emissions and achieve carbon neutrality. The clock is ticking fast.
Coming from an electronics manufacturing and engineering background, it is only natural that I think of how we can contribute to this carbon-neutral future via the production and use of tech products. In fact, major cities such as London, New York, Paris and Hong Kong—with the first pledging to carbon neutrality by 2030 and the rest by 2050—look toward smart technologies and forward-thinking designs to reduce carbon emissions and achieve circular economies.
Optimization of resource usage, and the maximization of energy efficiency, lie at the core of such carbon-reducing methods and circular economy plans. Below are three ways technology and engineering insights can contribute to these green goals.
1. Sensing Technologies And Big Data In Smart Homes, Buildings And Utilities
In order to optimize the use of resources, we must collect data. Specifically, big data. A large amount of data is needed to reveal patterns and associations regarding our usage behaviors. The analysis of such data will, in turn, illustrate areas previously unknown where savings can be made.
Big data to showcase energy usage can be collected via sensing technologies, such as those that measure temperature, light/heat/cooler usage, occupancy rates, etc. By having such data, households and building managers can optimize their energy consumption by turning off their heaters/air-conditioners when temperatures reach optimal levels or when no one is in the room. Academic research has shown that smart energy metering technologies in homes can lead to a 3% to 6% drop in energy consumption, and smart sensing networks in office buildings can save over 36% of room cooling and heating energy.
The technology for data collection and analysis to bring about green behavior is undoubtedly there. It is simply a matter of application and how far our imaginations for it goes.
2. Design And Produce For Energy Efficiency And Minimal Material Usage
Alongside the idea of energy-efficient social behavior is the idea of energy-efficient product designs and production methods. Green action can be done not only by consumers but also by producers.
From an electronics standpoint, in the industry to which I belong, products can be engineered to maximize their energy efficiency and minimize the components and materials needed for their production. This can be achieved if a product is designed to be as minimalist as possible in every physical aspect while retaining its complexity and quality in functions and performance.
For instance, designers must look for ways in which the performance of printed circuit boards (PCBs) can be optimized so that circuits are designed with the least number of components/materials needed, the most efficient routing and with minimal losses in electrical systems. Such a feat no doubt takes plenty of expertise. However, with more thought into our product designs, we can lower resource consumption from the very tools individuals, households and businesses use to consume energy.
A further consideration for producers is the best practices in manufacturing that can maximize energy efficiency in the production of a product. Total preventive maintenance is one such example in which manufacturers aim to reduce equipment shutdowns and breakages so that machines function most efficiently and waste minimal energy.
If we tap into such engineering knowledge, we can help reduce energy and material usage at a level beyond that of end customers. A collective effort is needed for a greener future.
3. Product Design With End-Of-Life (EOL) Recycling In Mind
Other than making inherent material savings at the beginning of a product life cycle, such green thinking can also be applied for product repairs and retirements.
A common method, for example, to improve an electronic product’s durability and repairability and attain an IP67 rating is to perform conformal coating. This way, electronics can be protected from weathering and would last longer. Companies, however, should consider how much they use so that they don’t fall into the trap of using excessive epoxy or glue in this process, which renders products completely impenetrable and, in turn, irreparable. As such, it is important to consider that the products are durable and repairable.
Also, consider the recyclability or reusability of product materials after their retirement. Recyclability and reusability can be designed into a product from as early as the conception stage of a product. For example, take the highly anticipated supersonic airplane, Boom. As the supersonic aircraft is being built, its engineers are already thinking about the eventual decommissioning of the aircraft and what it would mean for its materials.
While your company may not be building high-tech planes, you can still apply this design thinking to your electronic products. For instance, some materials are easily recyclable. ABS, a common plastic for electronics and household appliances, can be ground down, recycled and reused in other products. Common metals that make up cell phones such as copper, silver, gold and palladium can also be reused in other electrical appliances.
These considerations help to minimize waste and make circular economies possible. If we are to be as green as we have pledged to be, we have to change our traditional linear economy mindset of “take, make, consume, waste” and replace it with the circular economy mindset of “reduce, reuse, recycle.”
Engineering Our Tomorrow
Much can be done to ensure that products are engineered and used to lower material and energy consumption for their production and end users. Such green thinking can be applied to all stages of a product life-cycle. Our carbon-neutral ambition depends on the collective creation and use of relevant technology.
A greener tomorrow can be engineered. The climate clock is ticking. Let’s put our heads together to beat the clock.
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