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Sustainable Processes: Developing, Designing, Engineering

By Silvia Guttmann, 3M lead research designer, and Anne Gold, 3M product development specialist. In her role at 3M, Silvia works with teams to align and understand user needs and market opportunities. Anne explores new technologies and product ideas to meet 3M customer needs.  

Through the entire process of creating new, well-thought-out products and solutions, both design and engineering perspectives are important. For a product to be successful, these two functions need to work hand in hand, concurrently, instead of like a relay where one step of the process is completed by one function and the next by the other.  

When creating a new product, we first focus on the current user experience and their pain points. Next, we conduct research, focusing on the existing market and adjacent markets, and look for inspiration that could range from industrial tools to nature. Then we apply our learnings to our product.  

The lens of sustainability:  

Sustainability plays an important role in our design process. At 3M, we view sustainability through multiple lenses, including materials, processes and waste. The most obvious associations with sustainability that are visible to the general public are packaging and waste and how renewable a product is.   

We aim to design solutions that do more with less material, advancing a global circular economy, which is one of 3M’s three sustainability priority areas. Whenever possible, we look to design out waste and pollution.  

Other areas of focus during product development include: 

  • Improving manufacturing processes: Making the process more sustainable by using less water, creating less waste, streamlining steps in the manufacturing process or reducing the footprint by reducing the number of places we have to ship material during manufacturing. Manufacturing can become more sustainable not only by removing steps but also by considering the most sustainable form and function for the needed application. 
  • Reducing user touch points: The steps where the user encounters the product, from selecting and purchasing through using and discarding. How do we reduce these steps for a more circular product?  
  • Increasing digital sustainability: How easy it is for the user to select and understand what is offered to them; how many clicks/steps are required to purchase the product and track it until arrival. As technology becomes more applicable to all forms of products, we can find digital avenues for lowering ecological costs as well as data points on what works best for the customer and planet.    

Of course, we also encounter and must work through challenges, like cost, complying with changing regulations around the world the availability of sustainable materials for certain applications, and available recycling/reuse options. But these are parameters that help us innovate.  

Because of the diverse talent and technologies at 3M, we can approach sustainable solutions from many angles, whether it’s a product or the way we are making it or interacting with it. There is always room for improvement as in any product/material development, and we always strive for the best, most sustainable solutions.