I didn't know what to expect when we launched our Green Design Contest on Earth Day (April 22), which ran until June 30th. We've spent the last month judging the contest, and now that the results are in and the winners chosen, I can reflect on what you've learned about sustainable design. Here are a few reflections.
There is no such thing as the "most sustainable" shape, material, or manufacturing setting. Winning designs were proposed in many different materials and shapes (and some really interesting ones… like this great design from reused tires by John Hodges), and there was no "killer" setting in Sustainability that you had to have to be considered a top design. Intuitively, I know this is true from my experience as a sustainability professional, but it was really nice to see it verified in the diverse nature of the winning designs. I was a little worried that your entries might fall into one or two "local min/max" design paradigms, but most of you reached a "global max" in your search to optimize beauty, functionality, and environmental impact.
That said, it's hard to beat the woods for environmental sustainability, like this wood offering by Kah Fai Chin. More than half of the winning designs were made in some sort of wood; many of you specified bamboo, which you modeled using a similar wood. The reason that wood looks so good from an environmental perspective is that it's a renewable resource. Wood absorbs carbon as it grows — so-called "biogenic carbon" — and so its carbon footprint in SolidWorks 2010 and 2011 is actually negative. (Spoiler alert: it will still be very low in 2012, but we're making some minor adjustments in the carbon model, so it won't be negative.)
And some of you even specified balsa wood — you know, the really light stuff that you used to make your Pinewood Derby cars when you were a kid. Nature, when it builds ideal designs to solve its engineering challenges, favors novel shape before novel material, and novel material before expending energy; but we tend to solve problems in the opposite order. Your balsa wood designs were a nod to the way nature designs, by using this softer material in a structurally intelligent way so that would hold a 250-lb person, like this entry from Xiang Ma. And trust me, I double-checked each Simulation report for those balsa wood designs!
Perhaps most importantly, you showed us that you could think outside the (software) box — that is, you thought about sustainable design beyond the mechanical manipulations of the software. You created designs that were:
…inspired by landing gear legs and an airfoil seat profile (Gerard Libby);
…shaped like a DNA strand, representing and reminding us of our connection to nature (Karan Ambwani);
…designed as a pumped chamber to house the actual algae bioreactor for the algae biodiesel production (Ronald Majewski);
…and even collapsible for easy transport, perhaps tagging along in the cargo hold of one of our very own algae-powered aircraft (Rui Alexandre).
All in all, these designs were a real pleasure to judge, and made us a little more hopeful for the future world our kids will inherit!