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Integration of LCA Elements into Early-Stage Product Development at Steelcase


Steelcase is recognized as an industry leader in applying life cycle assessment in development, manufacturing, marketing, and product management.  To maintain this leadership role, Steelcase is looking to integrate such LCA elements into the earliest stages of product development.  The goal of this project is to build a tool which assists product developers in making early-stage decisions on material selection, material processing, and product manufacturing using an LCA-based approach.

The University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems (CSS) has worked with Steelcase since 2003 to develop Life Cycle Analyses (LCAs) of the company's products and incorporate LCA into the company's furniture development process.  This collaborative research has already resulted in one Master's degree thesis looking at a Steelcase's Answer lateral file, Answer panel configuration, and Universal corner, straight-front worksurface.  Additional product life cycle assessment studies have since been completed on Steelcase's Siento chair, AirTouch height adjustable table, and Garland double pedestal desk.  This previous research included both comprehensive data collection and process modeling.

The proposed work will build upon existing LCA study results, at Steelcase and other manufacturers, along with previous experience and insight gained over previous projects, to develop an early-stage LCA-based product development tool.  Such early-stage assessments enable more efficient product development by basing initial product decisions on life cycle metrics.  Existing data sets and studies will provide a starting point for this analysis, supplemented by additional data collection, product developer interviews, and site visits.  Building from the existing body of work sponsored by Steelcase will allow results of this work to move quickly from inception to use.
Steelcase is now looking to bring elements of LCA into earlier stages of its product development process, with the intention of applying LCA results more broadly and further integrating environmental considerations into its products.  One element of this integration is the development of an interactive tool to help developers address environmental impacts during early-stage product deveopment and engineering phases.  The tool will help developers estimate impacts, make tradeoffs, and provide early-stage reports on environmental performance.  The overall objective of this research is the development and deployment of an interactive computer program (or wizard) which acts as an interface to lead developers through early-age LCA-based product development.  The specific project objectives are:
1.    Develop the underlying tool metrics based on previous LCA work with Steelcase as well as other LCA and standard environmental impact metrics (ISO 14040).
2.    Identify a working interface for the tool and integrate with existing product development tools at Steelcase based on input from Steelcase product developers and other representatives.
3.    Create a working model of the tool for testing and implementation.
4.    Apply the tool to selected Steelcase products as a final measure of the tool’s accuracy and efficacy.

In particular, this tool will help product developers achieve several results:

1.    Accurately estimate the environmental impacts of developed products.
2.    Identify tradeoffs and evaluate different material, design, and production alternatives in conjunction with development decisions.
3.    Provide early-stage reporting on impacts of environmental improvements.

Developing a standard tool that is usable across Steelcase's diverse office furniture portfolio and between domestic and international divisions is an important element of this project.  This final tool will embody sufficient flexibility for application to a wide range of Steelcase office furniture product lines.  Additionally, will work proceed in cooperation with representatives from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) to ensure development of an internationally useable and effective tool.

Steelcase Inc
Research Areas
Consumer Products & Packaging