Life cycle approach

Perception and definition of product life cycle
Product life cycle and the Industrial Ecology perspective
Product-system concept
Life cycle approach to design: Methods and techniques

Life Cycle Design
Life Cycle Assessment
Life Cycle Cost Analysis

Main references

Life Cycle Design references
Life Cycle Assessment references
Life Cycle Cost Analysis references



The most significant benefits of Design for Environment can only be obtained if the product’s entire life cycle, including other phases together with those specific to development and production, is already considered at the design stage.
Products must be designed and developed in relation to all these phases, in accordance with a design intervention based on a life cycle approach, understood as a systematic approach “from the cradle to the grave”, the only approach able to provide a complete environmental profile of products. Only a systematic view can in fact guarantee that the design intervention manages to both identify the environmental criticalities of the product and reduce them efficiently, without simply moving the impacts from one phase of the life cycle to another.


Perception and definition of product life cycle

The concept of “product life cycle” is used with different meanings in different contexts. Excluding the strictly marketing context (where it is understood to mean the phases of introduction, growth, maturity, and decline, with regard to a product’s performance on the market), the term “life cycle” can be used in the management of product development to mean the entire set of phases from need recognition and design development to production, at the most going so far as to include any possible support services for the product, but usually not taking into consideration the phases of retirement and disposal.
This limited view of the life cycle has its origins in a statement of the problem conditioned by the competencies and direct interests of different actors involved in the life of manufactured goods. This leads to a fragmentation of the life cycle according to the main actors: manufacturer (design, production and distribution); consumer (use); third actor, defined on the basis of the product typology (retirement and disposal). It is clear therefore that the managerial concept of “life cycle” springs from the interests of the manufacturer, and does not usually include those phases subsequent to the distribution of the product.

From a more complete perspective, not limited by the point of view of a specific actor, the life cycle of a product must include both its abstract (need recognition and product conception) and physical dimensions, and extend the latter to include the phase of product retirement and disposal. This aspect fully interprets the life cycle approach, which in contrast to the limited view of the environmental question held by the single actor “manufacturer”, imposes a sort of “social planner’s view”.


Product life cycle and the Industrial Ecology perspective

In general terms, therefore, the life cycle of a product can be considered well-represented by the main phases of need recognition, design development, production, distribution, use, and disposal. The concepts underlying Industrial Ecology require that the actions of the system of all actors are placed in the context of the global ecosystem, which includes the biosphere (i.e. all living organisms) and the geosphere (all lands and waters). With these premises, environmental analysis is oriented toward a view of the life cycle of a product associated with its physical reality (physical dimension of product-entity), focusing on the interaction between the ecosphere and all the processes involved in the product’s life, from inception to disposal (see figure).
From this perspective, the product becomes “a transient embodiment of material and energy occurring in the course of material and energy process flows of the industrial system” [Frosch, 1994], and the life cycle is understood as a set of activities, or processes of transformation, each requiring an input of flows of resources (quantities of materials and energy) and generating an output of flows of by-products and emissions. This vision is in perfect harmony with the analogy between industrial and natural systems at the basis of
Industrial Ecology, according to which both system typologies are characterized by cycles of transformation of resources.


Product-system concept

Given that the environmental performance of a product over its entire life cycle is influenced by interaction between all the actors involved, an effective approach to the environmental problem must be considered in the context of the entire society, understood as a complex system of actors including government, manufacturers, consumers and recyclers. This system is also characterized by complex dynamics, since the various actors interact through the application of reciprocal pressures, dependent on political, economic and cultural factors.
For a complete analysis aimed at the evaluation and reduction of a product’s environmental impact, therefore, it is necessary to take into account not only the manufacturing phases of production and machining, but also the phases of pre-production of materials and those of use, recovery and disposal (see figure). Further, all these phases must not be considered in relation to the specific actors involved, but rather in relation to the whole environment-system, taking a wider view and sidestepping direct responsibilities.

The considerations made above can be summarized in a holistic vision of the product and its life cycle, where the latter is no longer thought of as a series of independent processes, expressed exclusively by their technological aspects, but rather as a complex product-lifecycle system set in its environmental and socio-technological context. It is then possible to speak of product-system. In its most complete sense, the product-system includes the product, understood as integral with its life cycle, within the environmental, social and technological context in which the life cycle evolves (see figure).


Life cycle approach to design: Methods and techniques

The primary objective of design activity consists of translating an idea into a product, and then the set of needs that this product must satisfy into detailed design. In the development of new products today, the designer must achieve this transformation while taking account of an ever greater range of requisites, not solely functional (time to market, profitability, reliability, safety, recyclability), which arise in relation to the diverse life cycle phases the product must pass through. The principal difficulty inherent in a design intervention of this type lies in the fact that the most effective choices concerning a single requirement often enter into conflict with other aspects of this wide-ranging problem. The following methods and techniques, born of the life cycle perspective, can aid the designer in this complex task.

Life Cycle Design (LCD)
It is the application of the life cycle concept to the design phase of the product development process, and denotes a design intervention which takes into consideration all the phases of a product’s life cycle (development, production, distribution, use, maintenance, disposal and recovery) in the context of the entire design process, from concept definition to detailed design development.
It uses design models, methodologies and tools to reconcile the evolution of the product, from conception to retirement, with a wide range of design requirements related to different phases of the life cycle (ease of production, functional performance, maintainability, environmental impact).
As a design approach, Life Cycle Design is characterized by three main aspects: the perspective broadened to include the entire life cycle; the assumption that the most effective interventions are those made in the first phases of design; the simultaneity of the operations of analysis and synthesis on the various aspects of the design problem.
This last characteristic merges Life Cycle Design with design techniques oriented toward the control and compression of the times and costs of product development found in the field of Concurrent Engineering.
As proposed by other authors [Alting, 1993], the concept of Life Cycle Design can be summarized by the schematic representation shown in
figure. Having identified the main phases of a product’s life cycle as need recognition and design development (development cycle) and pre-production, production, distribution, use, and retirement (physical cycle), all these phases must be taken into consideration starting from the definition of product concept, since this represents the most effective level of intervention where the evolution of the design idea has the least economic impact. The selection of design alternatives must be guided by considering the main factors of product success, which define the design targets, in relation to all phases of the life cycle: resources utilization (optimization of the materials and energy use); manufacturing planning (optimization of the production processes); life cycle cost (optimization of the total cost of life cycle); product properties (harmonizing a wide range of required product properties, such as ease of production, functionality, safety, quality, reliability, aesthetics); company policies (respect for the common company position and objectives); environmental protection (control and minimization of environmental impacts).

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
In the process of Life Cycle Design directed at environmental improvement of the product, the evaluation of results must be continuous and distributed throughout all the phases of the design process. To evaluate design alternatives and identify that best satisfying the environmental requirements, it is necessary to make use of suitable tools able to quantify the environmental performance of the product under development.

In current design practice, it is possible to identify various methods and tools available for use in evaluating the environmental results of a design. The most common and complete is Life Cycle Assessment, a technique that allows a complete environmental analysis of the whole product-system, giving an evaluation of the performance in relation to the entire life cycle. Its potential with regard to Life Cycle Design (or Life Cycle Engineering) is evident: “Life Cycle Engineering is the art of designing the product life cycle through choices about product concept, structure, materials and processes, and Life Cycle Assessment is the tool that visualizes the environmental and resource consequences of these choices” [Alting and Legarth, 1995].
It was at t
he conference organized by the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) in Vermont in August 1990 that the term “Life Cycle Assessment” was coined and defined as: “an objective process to evaluate the environmental burdens associated with a product or activity by identifying and quantifying energy and materials used and wastes released to the environment, and to evaluate and implement opportunities to affect environmental improvements” [Fava et al., 1991]. The life cycle approach was expressly highlighted: “The assessment includes the entire life cycle of the product, process, or activity, encompassing extracting and processing raw materials; manufacturing, transportation and distribution; use, reuse, maintenance; recycling and final disposal”.
From then on, the conferences and workshops organized by SETAC became an international forum for the discussion of the methodological foundations and more specific issues of LCA. Recognition of the validity and utility of this methodology led to international standardization through the publication, from 1997 on, of the ISO 14040 series of norms (which are integrated into the greater corpus of ISO 14000 standards for Environmental Management Systems). The detailed definition of LCA evidences the implicit intention of the standardization to delineate a clear reference methodology (see figure), considering it, in fact, a technique for assessing the environmental impacts associated with a product, by: “compiling an inventory of relevant inputs and outputs of a product system; evaluating the potential environmental impacts associated with those inputs and outputs; interpreting the results of the inventory analysis and impact assessment phases in relation to the objectives of the study” [ISO 14040, 1997].

Life Cycle Cost Analysis (LCCA)
Independently of product typology, for a manufacturing company controlling only the costs of resource acquisition, production and distribution can be considered an incomplete and obsolete approach in today’s world. Only by including the costs of the entire life cycle among the parameters of the decision-making process, is it possible to achieve a design which is effective in terms of economic feasibility. Life Cycle Cost Analysis, or Life Cycle Costing, is a methodology directed at the evaluation of all the costs associated with an activity or a product over its entire life cycle, thus assuming the dual role of an Life Cycle Assessment in economic terms. By virtue of their shared life cycle approach, Life Cycle Cost Analysis is the most appropriate economic analysis instrument in a Life Cycle Design intervention.
The importance of estimating and controlling costs during the design process with the aim of limiting the cost of producing a product, is considered an ineluctable factor in the development of an efficient product, one able to respond to a market demanding high standards of quality and ever shorter development times combined with contained costs. Life Cycle Cost Analysis plays primary role in this specific context due to the fact that not only production costs, but also those corresponding to the phase of use and disposal are greatly conditioned by the first design choices. It is held, in fact, that more than half of the total cost of a product’s life cycle is determined by the concept design phase alone, and that up to 85% can be considered fixed by the end of the completed design phase, although only a limited fraction of this cost will have been spent on these phases of the development process.
Life cycle costs are defined as the sum of the economic resources expended, directly or indirectly attributable to a product, beginning from its conception and including the phases of production, use and retirement. Therefore, Life Cycle Cost Analysis is the methodology used to evaluate all the costs associated with a product over its entire life cycle. In the design and development phases, Life Cycle Cost Analysis “provides a framework for specifying the estimated total incremental cost of developing, producing, using, and retiring a particular item” [Asiedu and Gu, 1998].
Its methodological framework has evolved from simpler forms, to more general forms. The advantage of the former is that they are relatively inexpensive and rapid to use, but they are not adequate for the development of radically new systems. The methodological framework shown in figure, characterized by the four main phases of preliminary definitions, cost valuation, results analysis, decision making, can be considered a reference procedure.


Main references

Alting, L. and Jorgensen, J., The life cycle concept as a basis for sustainable industrial production, Annals of the CIRP, 42(1), 163-167, 1993.

Frosch, R.A., Manufactured products, in Industrial Ecology, U.S.-Japan Perspectives, Richards, D.J. and Fullerton, A.B., Eds., National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1994, 28-36.

Gardner, D.M., Product life cycle: A critical look at the literature, in Review of Marketing 1987, Houston, M.J., Ed., American Marketing Association, Chicago, IL, 1987, 162-194.

Heiskanen, E., The institutional logic of life cycle thinking, Journal of Cleaner Production, 10(5), 427-437, 2002.

Sánchez, J.M., The concept of product design life cycle, in Handbook of Life Cycle Engineering: Concepts, Models and Technologies, Molina, A., Sánchez, J.M., and Kusiak, A., Eds., Kluwer Academic Publisher, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 1998, 399-412.

Sun, J. et al., Design for environment: Methodologies, tools, and implementation, Journal of Integrated Design and Process Science, 7(1), 59-75, 2003.

Young, P., Byrne, G., and Cotterell, M., Manufacturing and the environment, International Journal of Advanced Manufacturing Technology, 13(7), 488-493, 1997.

Zust, R. and Caduff, G., Life-cycle modeling as an instrument for life-cycle engineering, Annals of the CIRP, 46(1), 351-354, 1997.

Life Cycle Design references

Alting, L. and Legarth, J.B., Life-cycle engineering and design, Annals of the CIRP, 44(2), 569-580, 1995.

Alting, L., Life-cycle design of products: A new opportunity for manufacturing enterprises, in Concurrent Engineering: Automation, Tools and Techniques, Kusiak, A., Ed., John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY, 1993, 1-17.

Ishii, K., Life-cycle engineering design, Journal of Mechanical Design, 117, 42-47, 1995.

Keoleian, G.A. and Menerey, D., Life Cycle Design Guidance Manual, EPA/600/R-92/226, US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, Cincinnati, OH, 1993.

Kusiak, A., Preface, in Concurrent Engineering: Automation, Tools and Techniques, Kusiak, A., Ed., John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY, 1993, ix-xvi.

Wanyama, W. et al., Life-cycle engineering: Issues, tools and research, International Journal of Computer Integrated Manufacturing, 16(4-5), 307-316, 2003.

Life Cycle Assessment references

Consoli, F. et al., Guidelines for Life-Cycle Assessment: A Code of Practice, SETAC Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Brussels, Belgium, 1993.

Curran, M.A., Environmental Life-Cycle Assessment, John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY, 1996.

Fava, J. et al., A Technical Framework for Life-Cycle Assessment, SETAC Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Washington, DC, 1991.

Guinée, J.B., Handbook on Life Cycle Assessment: Operational Guide to the ISO Standards, Kluwer Academic Publisher, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 2002.

ISO 14040, Environmental Management - Life Cycle Assessment - Principles and Framework, ISO 14040:1997(E), International Organization for Standardization, Geneve, Switzerland, 1997.

Pennington, D.W. et al., Life cycle assessment - Part 2: Current impact assessment practice, Environment International, 30(5), 721-739, 2004.

Rebitzer, G. et al., Life cycle assessment - Part 1: Framework, goal and scope definition, inventory analysis, and applications, Environment International, 30(5), 701-720, 2004.

Life Cycle Cost Analysis references

Asiedu, Y. and Gu, P., Product life cycle cost analysis: State of the art review, International Journal of Production Research, 36(4), 883-908, 1998.

Dhillon, B.S., Life Cycle Costing: Techniques, Models and Applications, Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, New York, NY, 1989.

Dowlatshahi, S., Product design in a concurrent engineering environment: An optimisation approach, International Journal of Production Research, 30(8), 1803-1818, 1992.

Fabrycky, W.J. and Blanchard, B.S., Life Cycle Cost and Economic Analysis, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1991.

Kumaran, D.S. et al., Environmental life cycle cost analysis of products, Environmental Management and Health, 12(3), 260-276, 2001.

Weustink, I.F. et al., A generic framework for cost estimation and cost control in product design, Journal of Materials Processing Technology, 103, 141-148, 2000.






Product life cycle as an industrial ecosystem


Product life cycle with recovery


Product-system concept


LCD schematization


LCA framework


LCCA framework




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