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Sustainability in Product Design

It’s a common scenario: When prepping for a holiday gathering, refrigerator shelves become prime real estate. People juggle bottles and jars, readjust dishes by stacking some on top of others, and inevitably toss a few items to make way for casserole dishes and appetizer trays.

The project strived to enhance sustainable user behavior and an improved user experience for the GE Profile brand. The end result was a series of concept designs for appliances that integrate strategies for engaging design, improved sustainability, and positive user behavior.General Electric recognized that its customers perform this ritual regularly and sought out concepts to help alleviate the static nature of the refrigerator, a largely unchanged household appliance since it first gained widespread use in the 1920s. GE brought this challenge to a Senior Design Studio class with a missive: Propose a conceptual design that addresses this consumer issue while encouraging sustainable behavior.

Sustainable behavior, or the actions of consumers that enhance the environmental, economic, and social impact of a product, is an area GE wanted to explore in greater depth. Sustainability in product design and manufacturing is twofold. A product can be designed and fabricated to maximize sustainability through energy efficiency, materials, and performance. But these elements can only carry sustainability so far.

“You can have a very efficient product, but if it’s used in an inefficient way, then many of the benefits are gone,” said Alex Lobos, associate professor and graduate director of RIT’s industrial design program. “That’s where sustainable behavior comes into play. For industrial designers, that’s a way of looking at making better emotional connections between users and their products.”

Emotional connections encourage sustainable behaviors in consumers, who are now more likely to repair a product that breaks down, which extends its life cycle and offsets the energy used to manufacture the product. “If you have a good experience with a product, you are less likely to dispose of it, or to replace it often,” said Lobos. Ultimately, consumers extend a product’s life cycle by using an item for a longer period of time.

Conceptual Refrigerator

The Senior Design Studio project sponsored by GE resulted in several student projects. One of them is a conceptual refrigerator system designed by three industrial design students— Beatriz Alvarez, Sarah Chuah, and Behrad Ghodsi—that featured four customizable compartments with individual climate controls. The innovative design enables a sustainable solution that also influences the way users engage with the appliance.

A collaboration between the industrial design program and General Electric focused on developing new refrigeration systems.

On a daily basis, a consumer may need to utilize only two of the compartments. Because each compartment has its own temperature settings, on any given day one compartment can serve as a refrigerator and a second as a freezer. On the occasions when more space is needed, compartments three and four can become added refrigerator or freezer space. When not in use, extra compartments can be turned off, which saves energy, and these spaces become dry cabinet shelving for bakeware, cookware, or kitchen gadgets.

For industrial design students, sustainability and the manufacturing process are addressed beginning in the first year. And the importance of these concepts in the design process cannot be undervalued. It’s paramount that students understand the manufacturing process in order to achieve their design concepts, said Lobos.

“As industrial designers, we look at manufacturing as a way to make sure that our ideas can be produced and that they can be fabricated,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you have great dreams of how a product might change someone’s life; if you are not able to make that product, and make it at a reasonable price or quality, then that idea is not good.”

Lobos, who worked for GE and Whirlpool as an industrial designer before joining RIT, has seen the industry change and move toward one that now demands more skills and knowledge from its industrial designers. The curriculum in the program has evolved to include the broader concepts of manufacturing, sustainability, circular economy, materials, and interaction design. These concepts, along with an exceptional level of design skill, have produced graduates who are able to understand both the context and the implications of whatever they are designing.

“Our students are able to look at a bigger picture and understand the actual value of their designs,” Lobos said.

Real-World Preparation

The broader curriculum, which many students enhance with minors in disciplines such as mechanical engineering, packaging science, and business, is helping to prepare students for the realities of the workplace.

“Understanding manufacturing processes and elements that go beyond design empowers students and makes them more effective at communicating and defending their ideas when they are in a business setting,” Lobos said. “They can understand some of the limitations or some of the perspectives of other disciplines such as manufacturing, engineering, business, marketing.”

Industrial design students spend time in the various manufacturing labs at RIT and visit local companies and factories to see a full range of manufacturing processes at work. This perspective illustrates the scope of the design and manufacturing process, from the initial conception of an idea all the way to its execution in a manufacturing setting for mass production.

“The way we look at manufacturing is not as a challenge that needs to be overcome, but rather as a way of improving the design of products,” said Lobos.

He notes that many successful products in the marketplace seamlessly blend design with the manufacturing process, making it difficult to distinguish between elements that a designer wanted as part of the project versus something that, for manufacturing reasons, had to be part of the project. “If you use manufacturing, new materials, and processes in a good way, then those become important features of the design.”