CleanTech and its Product Development Challenges
As we strive for environmental sustainability, ‘technology’ is often given as a blanket answer to the myriad of challenges faced in transitioning to an equilibrium between our needs and wants and the planet’s resources. So, what is CleanTech, and what are some of the challenges in developing the products that can help achieve sustainability?
1. What is CleanTech?
Although there are many slants on CleanTech, the broadly accepted understanding is that it encompasses any technology which enhances environmental sustainability. In general, CleanTech can be categorised into three broad areas of targeted impact:
The old adage that “what gets measured gets managed” is as true of our environment as of anything else. Parameters to be measured range widely from global metrics such as temperature and CO2 concentrations to highly localised ones such as soil nutrient levels. Electricity smart meters, process operating parameters, flood monitoring devices and measures of renewable energy potential, such as solar irradiation or wind patterns, are all ultimately about enabling insight-driven decisions to mitigate, optimise and capitalise.
For mobile as well as spatially static monitoring nodes it is the combination of data types that often yields the highest value information, such as combined asset tracking and condition-monitoring to offer a product-as-a-service (XaaS) business model. This has huge potential implications for resource flows and raw material demands, and the energy expended in processing these.
One definition of waste is ‘anything that doesn’t serve a purpose’. The control of lights, heating and domestic appliances using smart-home CleanTech can curtail energy waste and bring associated cost reductions, and eg are proud to have developed the Hive Hub 360 for Centrica.
There are, however, many other sources of energy waste that through system optimisation and active demand and supply control, could be reduced. Many modern cars have in-built eco-driving performance indicators recognising that driving style can greatly impact fuel consumption, some factories dynamically balance production speeds of different lines to level energy demand and in agriculture, individual plant-level weeding and nutrient management is now possible to bring about significant efficiencies.
The self-learning fridge is an often-cited example of the application of CleanTech, and there is great potential in optimising demand, both through the smart management of individual pieces of equipment as well as their system-wide operation. For example, communication between a coffee machine, fridge and dishwasher to make sure they aren’t running at the same time can balance load within just one room, and such thinking can be extrapolated across whole homes and communities, as well as factories and construction sites. This multi-device communication is often a question of interoperability and the new standard dedicated to smart home products and IoT platforms, ‘Matter’ suggests that appliances may be able to communicate more freely soon.
Perhaps the application of CleanTech that most often springs to mind is that of renewables and other climate management technologies, such as Carbon Capture, which displace or offset environmentally damaging emissions. These macro-technologies certainly qualify as CleanTech, as do the vast supporting cast of enabling technologies – control systems, inverters and the host of other systems required to harness the planet’s resources. To take one example, a solar heating solution that displaces coal, gas or oil heating and the associated emissions requires pumps, storage and control systems in addition to the solar collector. Each of these is ‘CleanTech’ in its own right and entails sophisticated engineering development to enable the system to operate.
5. The Cleantech Challenges
Regardless of which category it falls into, the deployment of CleanTech presents some unique challenges in its engineering and product development. Often, the hardware is subject to incredibly harsh environments in inhospitable locations, exposed to extreme temperatures, permanently submerged or buried and yet is required to reliably perform complex sensing and/or mechanical actuation in these environments, as well as communicate with the outside world.
As well as in-service considerations, the use case, in terms of how it will be installed and interacted with, must be considered in defining the Product Requirement Specifications. For example, the implications of someone having to locate a remote and submerged device, open its sealed enclosure and replace the batteries regularly might outweigh the additional cost of a larger battery or of living with lower frequency data.
CleanTech products are rarely ‘stand-alone’ bits of kit. Each bit of hardware, whether a sensor, controller or generator, is generally part of a larger system. While connected IoT hardware is increasingly prevalent, the engineering design challenges to bring it to market are still significant. From an architectural design point, considerations include data granularity – to enable the right decisions and actions to be taken, and how this balances against, for example, electrical power supply and longevity, physical integration, and of course cost. Another dimension of this is the communications protocol(s) used across the system. This can have a significant impact on and be impacted by the unit’s location, accessibility and the types of data to be relayed. In this dynamic technology field, new functionality is also being brought to market almost daily, which brings additional considerations such as backwards compatibility and future-proofing of products. Once designed at an architectural level and at a product level, there is the small matter of certification testing to the appropriate standards under UKCA and/or the applicable Radio Equipment Directive (RED) for the geographies in which the product is intended to be used. Such certification testing benefits greatly from having had the requirements factored into the design programme from the outset, as having to re-engineer a product at the production-intent stage due to failed testing is often catastrophically expensive. While not required under all certification schemes, the security of the connected product should also be considered, and thoroughly tested. Small loopholes can allow mal actors to infiltrate business-critical hardware or even whole systems. As sadly cyber-crime and especially ransom demands are ever-increasing, mitigating against these risks in the development phases is a sensible practice.
CleanTech has a significant part to play in the efficient and sustainable use of the world’s resources. Monitoring, harnessing and controlling those resources is not without its engineering challenges and the development of CleanTech often requires hard graft. This is where many businesses choose to leverage the skills of a specialist product engineering design and development consultancy, who is already geared up to turn innovation into real, marketable products. At eg technology, we have experienced engineers across disciplines with the expertise to drive your CleanTech development forward using our own refined processes, knowledge of the development pathway and regulatory experts who will save you the cost and complexity of sourcing, integrating and operating a ’best of breed’ solution. You will also be allocated a project manager who will ensure your development pathway is mapped out and that each key step, from risk management and user research to supplier evaluations and process failure mode & effects analysis, is integrated and optimised. We put a complete, proven product development process at your disposal, providing the experience, the people and the systems necessary to take new products from concept through to transfer to manufacture.