The Role of PLM in Slowing Climate Change – Part 1

This new series of posts by Klaus Brettschneider and Richard McFall, contributing members of the PLM Green Global Alliance (PGGA), will explore how Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) can be used to slow climate change by reducing human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide and methane are the two most damaging GHG which are commonly reported on as CO2 equivalents, or CO2e, and are measured in billions of tons or gigatons. Carbon continues to build in the atmosphere due to human activities on the ground where it has now surpassed 410 ppm, nearly double that prior to the start of the industrial age. Since CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, a consensus is urgently building among climate scientists, elected officials, and NGOs like the International Energy Agency that the global economy must attain net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. This starts with a very challenging reduction of 50% by 2030, less than ten years away.

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We begin our series by outlining the different roles and use cases that PLM can have in minimizing the carbon footprint – or “decarbonizing” – products, businesses, industries, and even entire economies. But first a brief level set on what PLM is and is not.

A PLM Refresher

Within the PGGA we view Product Lifecycle Management foremost as a business strategy that manages all aspects of product-related information and data, not just in new product development but throughout the entire lifecycle. This definition of PLM is aligned with how market analysts like CIMdata and Gartner define PLM as a business strategy, not an engineering technology, and certainly much more than a software product.

In PLM the “product” can be a discrete manufactured device, long-life equipment, mechatronic system, service or even a process. Examples of product-related data can include: product structures, BOMs, variant configurations, specifications and ingredients, test and compliance data, materials sourcing, digital twins, simulation results, service records, and other forms of intellectual property.

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Implementing a PLM vision and executing a strategy is only made possible in practice by a broad and deep set of enabling technologies, supporting software, and subject matter expert service providers that collectively create an underlying PLM platform foundation. These technologies and solutions can include applications for Product Data Management (PDM), Model Based Systems Engineering (MBSE), Simulation and Analysis (CAE), Multi-Disciplinary Optimization (MDO), Product Portfolio Management (PPM), Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR), Configuration Lifecycle Management (CLM), Document Management Systems (DMS), Business Process Optimization and Workflow Automation (BPO/WFA), 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing (3DP/AM), and Digital Twins (DT) along with numerous others that comprise the dynamic PLM ecosystem with global investments now in excess of $55B. (Learn more about the PLM ecosystem in the PLM Atlas.)

Green Products

The most obvious use case of PLM to arrest climate change is in the innovation, design, and manufacture of “green” – or at least “greener” – products that consume less energy in their production and use, and thus have smaller carbon footprints. This traditional use of PLM in product innovation, engineering, and manufacturing is documented by numerous examples that are being collected and discussed on the PLM Green website.

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These example uses include the design and manufacture of more efficient refrigeration systems, electric vehicles, hydrogen-powered aircraft, public transportation and mobility, agricultural equipment, cargo ship propulsion, life-extending refurbishments, process plant equipment, advanced materials, and higher-performing alternatives for energy-intensive materials like cement, iron, steel, and fabrics.

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It is estimated that improvements from how we make then use and extend the life of greener products, including the raw materials as illustrated above, have the potential to impact up to half of the 50 gigatons of CO2e annually emitted from human sources.  Admittedly, PLM can also contribute to more mass-customized, non-sustainably produced, and globally-transported products which are not environmentally friendly, nor include in their price the true cost and long-term impact on the planet. As with most technologies, PLM can be used for beneficial innovations, like those we witnessed with access to cloud-based SaaS PLM during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to extend the life of unsustainable practices, products, and industries which should be transformed.

Green Energy

The second most important application of PLM is in the design, development, generation, distribution, and storage of sources of renewable green energy. There are many examples here which include: wind turbines, solar cells, hydroelectric power, tidal and ocean current generated energy, deep hydrothermal, pumped storage reservoirs, carbon capture and sequestering, longer-lasting batteries, and large-scale electrolysis for hydrogen production. It is estimated that improvements in this segment may contribute to a reduction of 25% of global CO2e emissions.

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The multitude of innovations to support the rise of affordable green energy, which PLM technologies enable, are also shared and discussed in the PLM Green LinkedIn Group in which we invite readers to join and post their own examples. From these discussions it has become obvious how critical it will be to rapidly expand green energy sources and simultaneously decommission power plants running on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. If we electrify most of our transportation modalities and manufacturing processes, but then fail to power them from carbon-free sources, we will have only externalized or outsourced the GHG emissions from one industry to another in a shell game with little net progress; what is commonly referred to as greenwashing.

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Green Adaptation

Another increasingly important use case of PLM technologies is in their application to help monitor, mitigate, and adapt where necessary to the consequences of climate change. This would include due to GHG attributed directly to human activity, as well as emissions that are released indirectly such as those from the melting of the arctic permafrost.

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Example use cases here include: space-based systems for monitoring methane emissions, equipment used for recording the atmosphere and weather patterns, modeling of geoengineering technologies to block out sunlight, systems to track the health of the planet’s forests and oceans, and design of new infrastructures to minimize the impact of extreme weather events and rising ocean levels. It is estimated that trillions of dollars will be required to prepare for climate change by making our infrastructure, economy, and national defense capabilities more resilient and sustainable. This investment may incite the greatest advancements in new technologies and their utilization that most of us will ever see in our careers.

Green Footprints

A final but equally important application of PLM is in collecting, simulating, and improving the “carbon footprint” of products, processes, services, and industries including their supply chains.  Undoubtedly, one of the most important metrics to monitor and improve upon is carbon footprint. This attribute not only includes the carbon used in the use or consumption of a product but also in its sourcing, manufacture, servicing, retirement, and recycling.

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As an example, the concept of a Digital Twin has been promoted as a way to evaluate and monitor the operational performance of product or asset using virtual or digital models. In the process industry, the ingredients and formulas associated with a product are already part of the digital twin specification. Manufacturers can roll-up this information and employ the results to improve production processes and print the nutrition information onto food labels for consumers. PLM already provides the IT platform and functionality to collect, track, validate, share, certify, and secure carbon emissions data as it does many other product elements whether calories, BOMs, or regulatory compliance data. As a result, a product engineer can pull the carbon impact of a product forward into an earlier stage of the development process when most of the downstream emissions are locked in.

Coming Next

In Part 2 of the Role of PLM in Slowing Climate Change we will examine the opportunities and challenges to employ PLM as just one component of company’s overall green strategy to calculate the carbon footprint of its processes and products. To follow our discussion be sure to register to receive our news updates on our contact page.

Until then we conclude with the following survey question: Which of the use cases cited above for PLM do you believe our profession should focus upon in the short term to help arrest climate change? Share your opinion in our current LinkedIn Poll.

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