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Designing for Sustainability with CAE Simulation

Designing for Sustainability with CAE Simulation

8-minute read

Keith Hanna, Hexagon | MSC Software - July 30th 2021


Nearly 30 years ago some 1,700 scientists signed a slim document entitled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” with the opening sentence including this eye-catching statement: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course...”. Twenty-five years later a second document was released, this time signed by over 15,000 scientists, saying that the situation had gotten worse! This story is just an illustration of how the concept of sustainability has become even more important over the last quarter of a century. Increasingly, it is becoming the responsibility of the businesses which we in the CAE industry serve, and this is only going to become ever more urgent in the next 20 years.

What exactly is ‘Sustainability’?

The concept of sustainability is arguably as old as human beings living in families, groups and tribes reusing nearby natural resources to survive from year to year. In our age, it has evolved to take its present form thanks to the Environmental Movement of the 1970s and can best be summed up by Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland’s definition in the seminal 1987 United Nations Report ‘Our Common Future’:

“Sustainable Development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The UN’s response to Brundtland’s report was the Kyoto Emissions Protocols in 1997 and the subsequent Paris Environmental Agreement in 2015. These accords meant that all the world’s major nations agreed to restrict harmful ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions (mainly CO2) and included timetables for countries to move towards ‘sustainable’ energy sources in the future. Currently these agreements are being flouted and they only cover energy sustainability but not food, water or other recycling challenges that the world faces.


Figure 1: Some Global Environmental Factors Impacting Sustainability

Figure 1: Some Global Environmental Factors Impacting Sustainability

If we look at trends related to sustainability (Figure 1), we can see that global temperatures have been rising in the last 50 years, the human population is projected to rise to unprecedented levels by 2050 (10 billion versus 3 billion a century before), we do not have enough natural resources and food supplies on the planet for the increasing middle classes with their associated consumption lifestyles, deforestation over the last 100 years of an area the size of Canada has taken place, and big multinational companies are some of the biggest polluters in the world. Indeed, it is estimated that we will need 3 planet Earths to maintain our lifestyle in the developed world over the next 20 years given current population demographics and growth trends. Of course, we can affect these trend projections by our personal, national and company choices and decisions today.

With such startling figures confronting humanity it is no surprise that increasingly we are seeing large numbers of individuals and environmental lobbyists dominate our news cycles with cult-like doomsday predictions for our future. Politicians and Industrialists have been stirred up to action like never before (Figure 2) and some companies like Volkswagen and BP have been hit directly in their pockets with billions of dollars of fines due to legislative environmental penalties associated with their manufacturing process failures. Many companies and countries are now pledging to be carbon neutral or carbon negative in the next 10 to 30 years. This issue of sustainability is arguably the biggest challenge in the history of our species on this, the one hospitable planet that we can survive on.

Benchmark April 2021
This article featured in the April 2021 edition of Benchmark magazine.
NAFEMS Members can download the full issue here.


Figure 2: Sustainability is a major challenge to countries and companies worldwide

Figure 2: Sustainability is a major challenge to countries and companies worldwide

What Exactly Does all this Mean for Manufacturing and, Specifically, Computer-Aided Engineering?

It is undoubtedly true that manufacturing processes contribute to CO2 emissions and environmental pollution as well as to the intensive use of our world’s precious energy, raw materials and water resources. Add to that the burgeoning human population on our planet, finite natural resources, endangered species and habitats and it is clear to see that the need to address sustainability has never been more critical for manufacturers. Sustainability will change the face of all industries globally that we work with and as we enter the era of Industry 4.0, ‘Digital Twins’ and autonomous processes, I believe it will be a key part of every manufacturer’s digital transformation initiative.

On the plus side, I would argue that CAE in its 50-year history has been quietly addressing many of the underlying issues of sustainability. With our predictive computer-aided engineering simulation tools addressing all physics types, we engineers have been designing better products and processes and thus getting longer product lives by making more efficient product designs.

We can also minimize material waste by coming up with lighter and more efficient products earlier in design cycles, we can minimize noise pollution at concept, we can improve the efficiency of existing products and processes thus saving on carbon emissions and materials, we can create transportation vehicles with lower drag and thus lower CO2 emission and produce greater fuel efficiency, and we can reduce polluting gases at source with better designs for all sorts of products and processes across a wide range of industries. Indeed, increasingly, CAE is eliminating the need for physical prototyping with all the waste and energy usage these prototypes require because virtual prototyping and the emergence of ‘Digital Twins’ in manufacturing is occurring across all industries.

If we break sustainability down into its component parts and the solution areas where CAE does and can have an influence at the conceptual design stage today and where the most cost savings (and ROI) can be effected with the biggest impact on the final product’s carbon footprint, we see these outcomes:

  • Designing new renewable energy projects (wind, wave, tidal, solar...)
  • Delivering smart, energy efficient buildings and built environment landscapes
  • Enabling optimal 3d printing for lightweighting of transportation vehicles
  • Designing and manufacturing of next generation eMobility solutions
  • Acoustic pollution abatement in urban and transport environments
  • Minimizing product waste at conceptual ideation and in manufacturing processes
  • Understanding materials inside products & their full sustainability impact including ‘reduce, re-use & recycle’ impacts, and
  • Ensuring legislative environmental compliance at the conceptual design stage.

Figure 3 provides several illustrations of CAE simulations from MSC Software’s customers today that are used to deliver sustainable impacts. However, I think one of the biggest challenges for sustainability with respect to CAE will be embedding sustainability related concepts and metrics into the early CAE design stage where product and process lifetime predictions are easiest to affect prior to production and lifetime usage and maintenance.


Examples of Sustainability related CAE simulations using MSC Software

Figure 3: Examples of Sustainability related CAE simulations using MSC Software

We CAE engineers have been used to selecting materials for our simulations based on good old-fashioned physical properties from textbooks and experimental measurements and putting the data into our favorite CAE tool of choice. However, when a certain material, (e.g., aluminium that uses lots of electricity in its creation, or stainless steel that is fossil fuel energy intensive) has a large CO2 emission footprint either through its creation process or across the lifetime of the product, or a composite that uses aggressive chemicals in its manufacture with resulting environmental impacts are factored in, a whole new paradigm of design dimensions will need to be accounted for. This ‘Design for Sustainable Manufacturing’ philosophy will be a major shift, I predict, in CAE in the next 10 years and a challenge for the up-and-coming engineering generation. I outline below several factors that CAE will need to take account of if we are to have Design for Sustainability inside our engineering simulation tools:

  • Sustainability by design will eliminate prototypes and minimize waste in early design and CAE users will be able to design smarter according to sustainability indicators at the conceptual ideation stage
  • Predictive design will require minimizing of material waste and taking into account social as well as economic impacts associated with raw materials and their environmental footprints
  • We will need to start to design a product for recyclability inside the so-called emerging ‘circular’ economy with materials reuse built in from the start
  • Designing products for a Zero Carbon Emission Footprint by lowering carbon emissions at concept in all industries, and
  • Designing right-first-time-for-sustainability with CAE tools will increasingly help to eliminate product recalls from the field due to increasingly more stringent environmental constraints thus avoiding environmental penalties.


Both global warming and environmental catastrophe appear to be an existential threat to all life on planet earth, or at least an irreversible consequence of mankind’s poor stewardship of our unique ecosystems and our rapid expansion in the last century. CAE today has been proven to reduce waste at the conceptual design stage helping to reduce physical prototyping, deliver right-first-time customized solutions, fuel the renewables and eMobility revolution, and ultimately brings design-for-recyclability to the fore for the highest business ROI possible in product development, and then throughout the complete product lifecycle of full recyclability in what is increasingly being called the ‘Circular Economy’. We have reached what is now frequently called Industry 4.0 with the next big wave in manufacturing leading to autonomy across factories, facilities, transportation, farming, mining, cities and even nation states.

CAE is both a source of simulation data and a glue to the ‘digital data thread’ needed to deliver manufacturing cost savings, productivity improvements and ultimately quality products designed with the intent to meet all environmental challenges from concept to retirement. I believe that consumer products need to be sustainable by design in future. By using engineering simulation CAE tools, we engineers can be in the vanguard of solving the world’s most pressing crisis; environmental sustainability. As is nearly always the case, science and engineering will have many of the answers to our global sustainability challenges, not noisy politicians or activists .... And I am confident that CAE will be at the forefront because we will design in solutions for sustainability before tooling and manufacturing and lifetime impacts happen.


Since 2018 Dr. Keith Hanna has been Vice President of Marketing for MSC Software, part of the Manufacturing Intelligence Division of Hexagon AB. He has over 30 years of experience in the Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE), EDA (Electronics Design Automation) and PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) industries in engineering, consulting, managerial and marketing roles in market-leading companies such as Fluent Inc, ANSYS Inc, Mentor Graphics and Siemen PLM. He has extensive experience across all industry sectors covering everything from conceptual design & simulation to industrial manufacturing processes. He has a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Birmingham in England and applied experience at both De Beers and British Steel PLC.

Keith is recognized as an industry authority on Computational Fluid Dynamics, and a regarded commentator on CAE topics. He has presented many keynotes at conferences around the world including at NAFEMS World Congresses. He helped to pioneer CFD in Sport in the 1990s and is a founding member of the International Sports Engineering Association. He has an ongoing passion for the democratization of CFD/CAE and takes an active interest in sustainability particularly related to manufacturing processes thanks to CAE software and digital twin solutions.