Software and Sustainability

Published on: 16th April 2020

Can software contribute to a product being more sustainable?  Software is not the first aspect that springs to mind when considering a design’s sustainability, so how can developing software more intelligently reduce the carbon footprint of a product, or make it easier to manufacture or recycle?

Like all companies that develop products, we have a responsibility to consider sustainability in how they will be manufactured, used and disposed of.  Some aspects are easy to pinpoint as targets for improvement: single-use plastics could potentially use biodegradable materials; harder plastics could be replaced by materials that are easier to recycle; the design could be tweaked to use fewer parts; and so on.  Reducing and improving packaging is another obvious area.  So how could software fit into all this?

At its simplest level, software is simply a set of rules that the electronics has to follow to provide useful functionality.  For instance, when the user presses a button, the electronics should turn a light on, or connect to a phone, or drive a motor to dispense an insulin dose.  The software rules are written to match the electronics, and generally the electronics components are selected together with the design of the software as part of planning how the product will work.

There are two options to consider when developing an electronics device: utilising a ready-made basis system which provides a starting point for development but may include a large amount of irrelevant functionality; or selecting the electronics and software parts individually.  There are many such ready-made electronics and software approaches.  Android is such a system – it is used by many manufacturers who want to develop a product with a display and internet connectivity, such as a phone or TV.  However, putting all the software you have on your phone onto a device as simple as a wireless thermostat is clearly overkill.

This is where a deeper knowledge of how embedded software works can be a differentiator in the market.  While it may be quicker to develop utilising an off-the-shelf software system, this can result in a large amount of functionality being included that isn’t required and artificially bloat the electronics design to match.  Such an over-specified system has higher energy requirements to manufacture and to run, higher maintenance and cooling considerations, a bigger electronics circuit board and more things to go wrong.  It’s harder to recycle at the end of life, having more parts, especially those which are hard to recycle such as circuit boards.  However, the drive to get connected devices quickly to market tends to push developers towards the ready-made but over-specified systems.  Could this lead to a dramatic increase in unnecessary unsustainability in electronics systems?

An engineer at DCA recently came across an electric vehicle rapid charger.  The software failed on it and it was rebooted remotely, displaying standard Linux start-up information for some minutes before being ready to charge his car.  He found himself asking why a rapid charger would use a large, complex operating system such as Linux, which needs a considerable amount of electronics and power to run.  A rapid charger controller needs connections to the charging electronics, a secure cellular network connection for payment and status updates, and be able to drive a display.  All of these could be implemented using low-cost embedded microcontrollers with minimal, dedicated software for each of these functions.  Saddling the charger with Linux resulted in a system that was slow to start, over-complicated and expensive to manufacture, and – according to reports on the internet – unreliable, almost certainly caused by over-complicated software.

Had the time been taken to investigate the minimum viable electronics that could run the required software functionality instead of just putting in an off-the-shelf general system with a huge superset of the required functions, a system with a considerably lower carbon footprint would have been possible.  It would also be far more cost-effective and reliable – a win-win situation then for the manufacturer.

This is where an experienced, integrated design approach across skills is important.  While the quickest approach is good for proof of concept, it’s important to challenge this to ensure that the final result has the right balance between development cost and optimal electronics, and therefore carbon footprint across its lifecycle.  Having all the disciplines under one roof allows us to take a product-wide approach to sustainability – even in software.

Please feel free to contact us if you would like to discuss our approach to software and sustainability.