A Hands-On Application for Teaching Design for the Environment (DfE) Principles - ASQ

A Hands-On Application for Teaching Design for the Environment (DfE) Principles


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Thomas F. Gattiker, Miami University

This article describes an approach for teaching design for environment (DfE). By providing students with the opportunity to brainstorm about a particular product, the exercise allows teams of learners to discover DfE principles for themselves. Teams of students are asked to disassemble a traditional videocassette and suggest ways to reduce its environmental footprint. Students are then introduced to a newer type of videocassette: the G-zero, which is fully comperable to the traditional videocassette, but it has a much smaller environmental impact. Comparing the two items brings to light many of the principles of DfE. Core competency and design as a source of strategic advantage can also be incorporated.

Key words: active learning, design for the environment (DfE), ISO 14000, pedagogy, quality function deployment


This article describes an instructor-led classroom experience for teaching design for the environment (DfE). The experience is highly participative and hands-on, and it allows students to discover independently many of the principles and implications of DfE.

DfE is growing in importance for several reasons. Governments and interest groups are increasing pressure on companies to increase the sustainability of their operations. Furthermore, environment-related product/service attributes are playing a greater role in the consumer’s purchasing decision (Chen 2001). DfE helps an organization deal successfully with these challenges.

Traditionally (from the 1970s to the late 1980s) companies largely considered their product’s environmental impact after the design phase (McManus 2002). Examples include dealing with polluting by-products once they are created (the so-called end of smokestack approach) or crafting end-of-life strategies for products after they are in full production. By contrast, DfE means considering a product’s environmental impact during product design, the phase in which much of a product’s environmental footprint is established. Considerations may include production processes that will be used (solvents, emissions, energy use, and so on), production processes used in manufacture of purchase parts, material toxicity, recycling, reuse, and remanufacture (Murray and Vietor 1995; Chen 2001).

It may be useful to place DfE in a broader perspective, particularly with respect to ISO 14000. ISO 14000 is a set of standards required for an organization to become “registered” or “certified.” ISO 14000 contains two families of standards: organization evaluation standards (organization structure, planning, corrective action, and so on) and product evaluation standards (product standards, product labeling, and life-cycle assessment). While DfE is not required by ISO 14000 per se, a DfE program is consistent with some of ISO 14000’s product standards. In practice, organizations from electronics (Magee 1997) to facilities construction (Krut and Strycharz 1999) have used DfE as a part of their ISO 14000 efforts. In particular, ISO 14060 (Environmental Aspects in Product Standards) states that the contents of product standards and specifications (for example, materials and processes that are called for) have consequences for the environment, and ISO 14060 instructs people involved in design and specification of new products to consider these potential impacts and to consult with the necessary experts as needed. Such experts might include specialists in DfE or life-cycle analysis (Cascio et al. 1996). The committee writing the ISO 14060 standard reportedly considered requiring DfE, but they rejected it because enumerating a DfE guide broad enough to be applicable to all potential ISO 14000 registrants was considered infeasible (Cascio et al. 1996).

Not surprisingly then, DfE is showing up in college and graduate school curriculums—as part of the overall quality function deployment (QFD) framework or elsewhere. For example, in their introductory operations management textbook Hanna and Newman (2001) present DfE along with their coverage of design for manufacturing (DfM). The following application is appropriate for the traditional university classroom (in the quality course or introductory operations management course) and perhaps in a professional training context.


The DfE videotape exercise is an application of active learning. Active learning is engaging students in nonpassive behaviors including “group exercises in which students apply course material to real-life situations and/or to new problems” (Faust and Paulson 1998, 4). The benefits of active learning are well supported by research (for example, Sokoloff and Thorton 1997; Hake 1998). College teaching authority Wilbert McKeachie (1994) concludes, “Active learning works not only because it helps motivation and feedback but also because active learners are more likely to be attentive and to be thinking about the topic…” (p. 284).

Unfortunately, many of the better-known and well-documented DfE efforts involve complex, expensive products, such as the Xerox photocopier. One disadvantage of using such a product as an example of DfE is that the item’s complexity makes it difficult for business students to understand the implications of many of the design developments. Furthermore, complicated and expensive products cannot easily be brought into the classroom, much less disassembled by learners, so opportunities for hands-on active learning are diminished. (Most departmental budgets preclude the purchase of copiers or automobiles for in-class disassembly!) By contrast, the experience described next uses a videocassette, an inexpensive and simple device with which students are familiar.

In particular, the exercise compares a traditional videocassette to E-Media’s Global Zero (G-zero) videocassette. Carlson-Skalak et al. (2000), E-Media (2002), Stephenson (1991), and Anonymous (1994) describe the G-zero videocassette and its development. The contribution of this article is a method for using the traditional videocassette and the G-zero as pedagogical tools.

The Set-up

The instructor begins by asking students to describe the supply chain for videocassettes. With a little prompting, the class usually arrives at the following: raw material and component phase, manufacture cassette shell and wind tape, duplicate program onto cassette, and distribute in one or more of the following channels: video rental, retail sales, direct-mail advertising, or other promotion advertising. The instructor then asks students to characterize the market for the videocassette shell (the videocassette minus the programming). A key factor is standardization (all videos must work in all players), which contributes to low cost being the order winner. Indeed, most shells are manufactured in the developing world using low-cost labor and components.

The instructor then describes a new company that wishes to enter the market and manufacture domestically, where many costs are higher. Clearly, as students point out, the company must differentiate itself from the off-shore competition. The instructor then raises the issue of consumer acceptance in the direct mail, promotional, and training segments of the videocassette market. Many consumers and business decision makers view single-use, disposable videocassettes as irresponsible to the environment. As the class quickly realizes, an “environmentally friendly” videocassette is a good niche for a new entrant in the market.

The Hands-on Experience

At this point, the instructor divides the class into small groups and gives each group a traditional videocassette and a screwdriver (Note: Disassembly will destroy the videocassettes but one’s workplace or home probably has accumulated a store of unwanted ones.) The professor instructs each group to take apart the videocassette and discuss ideas for making the product more “environmentally friendly.” At this point, “environmentally friendly” has intentionally been left undefined. Similarly, the DfE concept has not been formally introduced. The students and instructor will develop most of these as the exercise progresses.

After 10 minutes, the instructor asks for ideas from the teams and records them on the chalkboard. Typical ideas include:

  • Packaging with a note inviting consumers to reuse the cassette by rerecording other programming onto it
  • Collecting the cassettes for reuse by others, using the mail or a drop-off point
  • Partial reuse: Winding tape with new programming onto a used shell once collected
  • Recycling the products’ plastic and other materials
  • Using recycled materials in the manufacture of the videocassette
  • Using corn starch or other biodegradable materials
  • Unconventional ideas, such as using the spools to make adhesive-tape dispensers

It may be useful to categorize the ideas (that is, sourcing, manufacturing, logistics, recycling, remanufacturing reuse, disposal). To stimulate student’s creativity, it may be useful to show part of the film Castaway in which Tom Hanks uses washed-up videocassettes to make a number of items.

At this point, the instructor begins leading the class in an effort to enumerate general DfE principles. An effective way to do this is to refer to the class’s version of the aforementioned list and ask the class how can the cassette be redesigned to facilitate any of the approaches to environmentally friendliness (for example, to make any of the approaches more economical or simply to make them feasible). For example, certain design elements would hinder reuse. One example is the absence of the punch-out tab that allows recording on standard VCRs. As another example, the availability of recycled forms of materials should be taken into account during the design phase—when the merits of competing materials are being considered—not later in the process after a particular material has been chosen. (A suggested list of principles is in Appendix 1.)

Introducing the Class to the G-zero Videocassette Shell

In the midst of the process of enumerating general DfE principles, the instructor introduces the G-zero videocassette shell by circulating several of them around the room (the shells should be opened up in advance so the insides are visible). The G-zero is fully compliant with existing (V-zero) standards so that it works in standard VCRs. However, its environmental impact is much lower. Figure 1 shows a disassembled standard VHS videocassette; Figure 2 shows a disassembled G-zero.

The cassette demonstrates that companies often must choose among different strategies for minimizing environmental impact. In the case of the G-zero, this notion is most apparent in the end-of-life decisions that were made. The company chose a recycling strategy, rather than reuse or remanufacturing. The producer initially envisioned disassembly and therefore made design choices to facilitate this—even imprinting parts with Braille labels for occupationally disadvantaged workers. However, the company eventually changed directions and chose municipal curbside recycling as the reclamation channel, instead of asking consumers to return the cassettes to a collection/disassembly point.

Once students understand the end-of-life strategy that was selected, the instructor can begin to explain the ways in which the strategy can be designed into a product—rather than being addressed later in the product life cycle. Referring to the G-zero, the instructor asks students to point out important “designed in” features that facilitate recycling. Some of these are clear from looking at the G-zero cassette and comparing it to the traditional cassette. For example, the G-zero uses mostly one type of material, polypropylene, while the V-zero uses numerous plastics and many metal parts.

The instructor can walk students through some of the less obvious design features and explain the thinking behind the design (Appendix 2 provides a summary of these). The G-zero designers chose polypropylene over polyethylene—the material used for most plastic parts in the V-zero—because polypropylene is recyclable. Perhaps more important than the type of material, the product would need to be of a single recyclable material. In other words, it is not enough to use recyclable materials. Instead, a major factor contributing to the recyclability of items like soda bottles or tin cans is that they are made from one material, rather than from numerous materials that would need to be disassembled and segregated. A design breakthrough that facilitated material homogeneity in the G-zero is the integrated construction of the outer case. The standard V-zero design uses numerous metal springs and a variety of plastics in the hub-locking mechanism and in the door assembly (the part that opens when the user puts the tape in a VCR). Many of these parts are visible in Figure 1. By contrast, the G-zero designers incorporated the hub-locking mechanism, and the door into the case itself. In other words, the case, the hub-locking mechanism, and the door are all a single part (see Figure 2). They attach to the case via a living hinge, just as a flip top attaches to the cap on many shampoo bottles.

Similarly, the designers eliminated two metal rollers by integrating them into the case as well (see Figure 2, top). This measure further reduced material variety—again substituting polypropylene for metal. Furthermore, they did away with all metal screws by fastening the two halves of the case together with sonic spot welds.

The sum of these efforts resulted in the near elimination of material variety. The V-zero design uses five or more materials including multiple plastics, whereas 99.8 percent of the G-zero is polypropylene. The nonpolypropylene parts are two metal springs (see Figure 2, lower left and lower right). However, designers took two actions to minimize the impact of these parts. First, the springs are small so they will not harm the machinery that grinds plastics for recycling. Second, the springs are made of a magnetic material so they can be sorted out of the grind mechanically.

In addition to being recyclable, the company chose to use polypropylene because they could source the material in a nonvirgin form. In particular, the majority of the polypropylene used in the product is scrap from a diaper factory.

Many students believe that environmentally responsible operations are more costly than traditional operations. Often the reverse is true. Environmental improvements cause individuals to reconsider existing designs and methods. Therefore, a byproduct of environmental efforts is often the identification of opportunities for decreasing cost and increasing productivity (Hanna, Newman, and Johnson 2000). For example, by reducing the number of parts from 32 to 7, the G-zero design increases manufacturability and thus decreases production cost. Furthermore, because the G-zero design is so different, its maker avoids paying a royalty to the patent holder for the traditional design. Several other interesting synergies exist. For example, because it is lighter, the G-zero reduces direct mailers’ shipping costs. Finally, because of the low number of parts and the choice of materials, the G-zero is actually more reliable than traditional videocassettes, even though it is designed as a limited-use product.


In addition to teaching DfE, this exercise can be used to introduce the notion of design skill as a source of competitive advantage. Students almost always observe that videocassettes are becoming obsolete—being replaced by other media, such as DVD. Thus students often reason that the company would be a poor investment. (The author sometimes asks the class, “Would you invest in this company?”) At this point, the instructor points out that a company can be assessed by its core competencies rather than by its current products. Prahalad and Hamel (1990) discuss the competency/product distinction and fate of several companies that failed to understand it. Instructors may wish to lead a quick tour of E-Media’s Web site (E-Media 2002) to underscore the notion of competencies. This site provides a lot of evidence (other products and so on) that the company’s competitive advantage comes from its ability to design products that exploit advanced molding techniques, rather than from a particular product such as the G-zero. Therefore, even though the G-zero is perhaps not a source of sustainable competitive advantage, the product provides evidence that the company may well be a strong performer in the long run.

Evidence of Effectiveness

On evaluations and the like, students cite this experience as one of the high points of the class. Furthermore, the exercise has been adopted by several other faculty members at the author’s university and at least one other university.


The article presents an experiential means by which students can “discover” DfE. The following are key learnings that arise from the experience:

  1. Taxonomy of DfE strategies. Companies can direct product/service design efforts at one or more areas such as input materials, transformation processes, recycling, remanufacturing reuse, and disposability.
  2. Specific DfE principles that guide these efforts, such as those listed in the appendix
  3. “Bigger picture”/business implications of DfE: The G-zero’s small environmental footprint gives it a market niche.
  4. Design as an example of a core competency

Asking students (many of whom appear not to know how to use a screwdriver) to physically disassemble a product in class certainly gets their attention. The hands-on nature of the lesson increases student interest and likely enhances their retention of the material.


Anonymous. 1994. Cassette wins enviro-award. Environment Today (September): 20.

Carlson-Skalak, S., J. Leschke, M. Sondeen, and P. Gelardi. 2000. E-Media’s global zero: Design for environment in a small firm. Interfaces 30, no. 3: 66-82.

Cascio, J., et al. 1996. ISO 14000 guide. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Chen, C. 2001. Design for the environment: A quality-based model for green product development. Management Science 47, no. 2: 250-263.

E-Media. 2002. G-Zero Video Cassette. See URL: www.emedia.com/product-gzero.html.

Faust, J., and D. Paulson. 1998. Active learning in the college classroom. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching 9, no. 2: 3-24.

Hake, R. 1998. Interactive engagement vs. traditional methods: A six thousand-student survey of mechanics test data for introductory physics courses. American Journal of Physics 66: 64-75.

Hanna, M. D., and W. R. Newman. 2001. Integrated operations management. Upper Saddle River N.J.: Prentice Hall.

Hanna, M. D., W. R. Newman, and P. Johnson. 2000. Linking operational and environmental improvement through employee involvement. International Journal of Operations and Production Management 20, no. 2: 148-165.

Krut, R., and J. Strycharz. 1999. ISO 14001 and design for the environment. Greener Management International 28: 69-78.

Magee, S. 1997. The environment. IEEE Spectrum 34, no. 1: 94.

McKeachie, W. 1994. Teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers. Lexington, Mass.: DC Heath & Co.

McManus, T. 2002. Pollution prevention and DfE. In Handbook of Pollution Control and Waste Minimization, ed. A. Ghassemi. New York: Marcel Dekker.

Murray, F. E. S., and R. Vietor. 1995. Xerox: Design for the environment. Case study (9-794-022). Boston: Harvard Business School.

Prahalad, C., and G. Hamel. 1990. The core competencies of the corporation. Harvard Business Review (May-June): 79-90.

Sokoloff, D., and R. Thorton. 1997. Using interactive lecture demonstrations to create an active learning environment. The Physics Teacher 35: 340-347.

Stephenson, W. D. 1991. Environmentalism’s strategic advantage. Quality 30, no. 11: 20-21, 23.


Thomas F. Gattiker is assistant professor of operations management at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He has published articles in Production and Inventory Management Journal, International Journal of Production Research, and Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education. His current research is the application of information technology, such as enterprise systems (ERP) and Internet reverse auctions, to the operations and supply chain areas. He also publishes on pedagogical topics. He was the 1999 APICS E&R Foundation George and Marion Plossl Fellow. Before obtaining his doctorate from the University of Georgia, he worked for six years in industry, in operations and inventory management, most recently at Rockwell Automation/Reliance Electric. He earned his undergraduate degree from Davidson College and his MBA from Georgia. He can be reached by e-mail at gattiktf@muohio.edu .

DfE Principles

Input materials

  • Specify materials that can be purchased and used economically in a recycled form.
  • Understand the cradle to grave of all materials used or under consideration (how they are extracted and produced, their renewability and scarcity)

Transformation processes. Consider them during the design phase. Design products so that they can be produced with processes that…

  • Do not pollute
  • Reduce energy consumption
  • Minimize waste


  • Reduce the variety of materials used as inputs.
  • Do not fasten materials permanently or in ways that make it hard to separate them.
  • Avoid processing materials in ways that reduce its recyclability (for example, coatings).
  • Label or mark components to identify the material from which they are made.


  • Ensure a channel exists for return or buy-back of the product at the end of its life.
  • Use recoverable or remanufacturable parts and components.


  • Include features that facilitate an “afterlife” for the product (a second use). Avoid features that hinder the same.


  • Use inert materials.
  • Design a product that can be upgraded, instead of replaced.
  • Reduce mass and volume of components.
  • Reduce or eliminate packaging.

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Summary of G-zero Design Innovations

  • Reduction in the number of parts (from 32 to 7)
  • Reduction in the variety of materials used (from five or more to two)
    • Reduction in the types of plastic used (even to the untrained eye, the traditional shell uses two types and the G-zero uses one)
    • Fewer types of metal used
  • Reduction in the amount of material used. The reduction in weight can be felt by hand.
  • Multiple-use components. Numerous discrete springs and posts are eliminated by molding posts and living hinges into the shell (when a living hinge is used the part(s) being connected and the hinge itself are all a single part, as in many shampoo bottle caps).
  • Reduction in the number of metal parts (to facilitate plastics recovery)
    • Five of the product’s seven parts are polypropylene. Two springs are metal. (Only 0.2 percent of the product by weight is metal.)
    • Fastening shells halves together with welds, so that metal screws are eliminated
  • Different type of plastic used (compared to the plastics in the traditional videocassette, polypropylene, the material used, is widely available in recycled form and is recyclable).

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