Navigating the intersection of Sustainability and Design in Automotive Manufacturing

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Which takes precedence: design or sustainability? And how does India fare in this scenario, particularly considering cost factors? Industry experts, including raw material suppliers and OEMs, share their insights on this matter.

This panel delved into ‘Designing Sustainable and Aesthetically Pleasing Vehicles’, an area of discussion that impresses many but is mastered by a few. Panellists Dr. Sandeep Waykole, India Business Director and Global Programme Director, Faurecia Clairon Electronics India Pvt. Ltd., and Christopher Stillings, Head CMF Global, Covestro, delved into the topic as Jaiprakash Ramani, Chief Marketing Officer, Supreme Group, Automotive BU, led the discussion as its moderator.

Ramani initiated the conversation by addressing the contrasting nature of design and sustainability. He inquired of Stillings how he navigates the tension between the free flow of ideas in design and the necessity to operate within constraints when considering sustainability.

According to Stillings, constraints are inherent in the utilisation of materials for specific applications due to their nature and characteristics.

He went on to say that “there is no perfect material” and so there are always certain compromises made, and certain attributes of that plastic is prioritised. This complexity only gets heightened when one deals with recycled materials, which limits design and aesthetic options.

In areas like colouring, this can be even more challenging or impossible. Further, mechanical recycling also brings in a damage of polymer chains, and mechanical properties may not remain the same.

He recommended the need to conduct dialogues and educate, which will push the boundaries of these constraints and give designers commercialised, producible materials in their hands and a certain playing field that they should aim to keep expanding. While this is challenging, it will prove a fruitful opportunity in the future.

Dr. Waykole explained that there is a form of a checklist that is followed when it comes to design, this includes cost, process, material; sustainability must be added to this mandatory checklist and shouldn’t be evaded. 

The first step, according to him, is understanding what sustainability is. He explained that there’s a lot more layering to it than making a jump to a bio-based or environment-friendly materials. The most important factor is that the material must be available in local areas.

Then second factor is to process the material with minimum energy, and environmental impact, and amidst all this the selected material must also be cost-effective. “If you have a biodegradable material coming from Europe, through sea or air, there is a lot of carbon footprint involved in the travel,” ultimately rendering the objective of sustainability futile, he explained.

As a call to action, he recommended raising awareness among designers, who just a decade ago, made the shift from metal to plastic, and now are expected to shift from plastic to sustainable plastic.

Ramani then posed the core question of the conversation, “What comes first? Design or Sustainability?”

Dr. Waykole shared that due to the lack of awareness, and the fact that the sustainability market has not yet reached its potential, and the focus is still on designing. 

However, he added that there are two approaches, a design-based approach and a sustainable-based approach. While the automotive industry largely tilts towards designing, there are certain components now where people do prioritise sustainability, for instance the seating system. It has started but will take time to develop.

As a raw material supplier, Christopher said that they get a variety of customers, some of them have a design ready and want to inculcate sustainability at least somewhere in the interiors; on the other hand, those who are coming up with entirely new models, generations of are working with electric vehicles, prefer to really think it through. 

Designers and engineers are increasingly tasked with thinking about the product from the outset. This shift has implications for material selection, introducing the need to incorporate principles of a circular economy, this involves considerations such as getting these materials back or increasing the product life cycle. To address something so multifaceted, collaboration becomes essential, said Stillings. 

Sandeep echoed this thought and added that sustainability also encompasses the two key areas of life cycle assessment and end of life. Today, designers must think about this right from day one. The product must be manufactured sustainably, and at the end of its life must be either recycled, reused, or repurposed.

Ramani pointed out that in addition to being environmentally friendly, sustainable designs must also take care of social requirements, and economics. In lieu of this, he asked which of the three is often compromised, and can a balance be achieved?

With respect to the environment, Waykole suggested that a material might not be biodegradable, but must reduce energy or water consumption. Further, with respect to economics, its not true that sustainable materials are always costly, there is a need to look at end-to-end results, as in the long term, it is likely that these materials can be cost-effective. Lastly, with respect to social requirements, Sandeep saw no issue, and in fact went on to suggest that it can have a positive impact. 

Christopher said that whether a compromise is made, depends on the time frame that one looks at. If the economic situation is seen with respect to raw materials, the price will be higher, as the current value chain is based on scale and that scale has not been achieved yet.

Thus, he concluded his statement saying that an economic compromise at the initial stages needs to be done. Once the system scales, it will generate profitable value streams in the long run. Socially, this will help with localisation efforts and generate a positive impact.

The discussion shifted with Christopher answering that it is indeed a challenge sometimes when designers require natural materials which are hard to process. He shared that in his interactions with designers and CMF experts, he’s observed that they are critical about plastics, and are eager to know more. If there are dialogue platforms that enable discussions between raw material suppliers and designers, there can be solutions which both work together on, and create genuinely good examples.

Sandeep added sustainability does not always equate itself with biomaterials or fibre-based materials. Processing an engineering plastic compound with a rejection rate of nearly 0.5 per cent is considered sustainable because current injection moulding technology can minimise scrap to almost 0 per cent through recycling. On the contrary, introducing biodegradable material without adequate technology may result in a 20 per cent scrap rate, making it an unsustainable solution. Waykole suggested a gradual approach, allowing technology to evolve. In the meantime, sustainability can be achieved through alternative methods. Instead of leaping towards options not currently available in India, it’s advisable to utilise existing methods both before and after technological advancements.

Christopher noted an increasing trend where individuals express a desire to create products that appear more sustainable, often leaning towards speckled materials to mimic the look of recycled or scrapped materials and shared that this might come at the expense of compromising mechanical properties and, consequently, the durability of the product. Overusing effect pigments, for instance, can hinder the material’s performance. Christopher also stressed the need to avoid ‘greenwashing’ cautioning against the tendency to opt for virgin material merely for its appearance, rather than using recycled materials. 

Ramani inquired Christopher about the influences on his organisation’s sustainability strategy for raw materials, questioning whether it is solely driven by OEMs or is also shaped by external factors like government and societal expectations.

Stillings responded, stating that initially, the sustainability initiative originated within the organisation. However, he noted that in the current landscape, external factors such as regulations and market pressures significantly contribute to the sustainability drive. He highlighted that the organisation was among the early adopters in expressing the ambition to achieve full circularity, especially in the energy-intensive chemical industry, acknowledging the associated challenges and consequences.

Further, he pointed out that creating a positive impact in terms of CO2 emissions or climate neutrality, designers play a major role; they need to think ahead and come up with new product designs.

He also disclosed that over time Covestro will be seen switching all their plants towards a direction that they run on renewable energy, along with increasing the use of alternative raw materials. Furthermore, substantial investments are being made in chemical recycling, presenting a promising avenue for attaining a set of material properties comparable to those in the current production value chain at a later stage.

Posing a question to Sanjay, Ramani asked him about the process of navigating conflicting requirements for designing the same product for a single vehicle across different geographies, considering varying government incentives and regulations, while maintain consistent design. 

From the viewpoint of a Global Programme Director, Khare explained that the global programme is undertaken by OEMs primarily due to the economic advantages gained through economies of scale. However, this often necessitates compromises at different levels. In the context of India, it is observed that global programmes are frequently shared with Brazil and Russia. 

The consideration revolves around what is locally accessible. The modular design is a key factor, and decisions are influenced by factors such as local availability, material, cost structures, and adherence to local regulations. 

 

Although the overall design may be consistent, there are instances where compromises are made based on specific local requirements, material availability, and cost structures. While certain components like seats or the instrument panel design may be standardised, there are often necessary adjustments to accommodate local factors.

In terms of cost-effectiveness with a focus on sustainability, he explained that India is consistently positioned on the lower cost side when comparisons are made. Brazil, on the other hand, tends to be more expensive, making India the more economical choice. However, he noted that the situation has evolved, especially in global programmes where specific and well-defined targets have been set. 

If one sets a cost target from the outset and effectively manage the entire programme from inception to end-of-life, incorporating all relevant factors, it becomes a manageable task. However, the ongoing challenge for India persists, as it continues to be perceived as a low-cost country. Despite this, there is a need to dispel the misconception that all resources and raw materials are readily available domestically. 

 

In reality, he shared that there is a reliance on imports. The global platform demands access to the best technologies worldwide, and it is crucial for OEMs to extend the benefits of advanced technologies to India. While India can leverage advantages in terms of productivity and manufacturing, certain aspects like materials and technology tools are still sourced from abroad. The awareness of this reality has been growing among OEMs, recognising the need to defend their counterparts while acknowledging the challenges inherent in the process.

 

Given the reliance on imported raw materials, Christopher gave an insight into maintaining a balance between competitiveness and meeting the expectations of OEMs in India who seek sustainable or nearly sustainable products.

He expressed that they do face challenges. However, he mentioned that their advantage lies in the global positioning of their production facilities, not just in compounding but also on the website front. Although the company does not have a website in India, the opportunity to import from diverse countries helps us manage the situation. Looking ahead, it’s undoubtedly a challenge, but it also presents opportunities. 

Khare pointed out that the reason for importing is the lack of economies of scale. He envisions a future where all OEMs unite to define a standardised approach, with all interiors categorised in one grid and all exteriors in another. 

He foresees a similar shift occurring soon, driven by the increasing adoption of technology like EVs and other features, as well as the rise of autonomous and semi-autonomous systems. As these technologies become more prevalent, the industry is likely to transition towards a standardised approach for materials, driven by the economics of scale.

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