The environmental impact of lightweight engineering

Students studying lightweight engineering

To satisfy the demands of modern engineering, lightweight structures are becoming more and more essential. In many different applications, such as automobiles or machine tools, weight reduction is accomplished by either utilising less material or by switching to a lighter material that offers more capability per unit of weight. But what is the environmental impact of lightweight engineering? That is what we will be talking about today.

Lightweight structures and their environmental impact

Lightweight structures should have lower environmental impacts per functional unit when compared to conventional structures on a life cycle basis. The use of new materials and manufacturing processes, however, frequently results in an increase in the environmental impact of the life cycle’s raw material and production stages. Additionally, recycling and end-of-life disassembly may become more challenging. Consequently, the environmental evaluation of lightweight structures in engineering entails various methodological challenges.

Life cycle engineering (LCE)

Alting provided an early definition of life cycle engineering (LCE), saying that it is “the art of designing the product life cycle through choices about product concept, structure, materials and processes, and life cycle assessment (LCA) is the tool that visualises the environmental and resource consequences of these choices”. 

This understanding has significantly improved the eco-efficiency of new products and technology. However, the environmental footprint that comes along with population growth, economic prosperity, and other factors may have eliminated the advantages of eco-efficiency gains.

Using life cycle assessment (LCA)

There are multiple reasons to use LCA and LCA-based engineering approach for lightweight structure. Some of them include:

  • Identify hotspots: Performing an LCA to support LCE allows for analysing the technosphere encompassing all life cycle stagesand identifying the system elements with the most significant impacts on the ecosphere. 
  • Avoid burden shifting: Reducing the weight of a product is often motivated by a decrease in energy required to move it, thus decreasing its environmental impact.
  • Identify trade-offs: Additional trade-offs may arise between different environmental impact categories. A reduction in climate change affecting emission during the use stage might be accompanied by substanced with human toxicity potential being emitted in the raw materials extraction and manufacturing stage. 
  • System understanding and build knowledge: LCE of lightweight structures fosters the understanding of cause-effect relationships and deepens knowledge on product and process development. This gives the knowledge of which lightweight measure to select in order to reduce environmental impacts. 


Thanks for taking the time to read our blog post on the environmental impact of lightweight engineering. If you’re still in the phase of considering where to study in Germany, take a look at our Master's in Lightweight Engineering & Composites, with a campus located in Stade, near Hamburg. At PFH we make sure you receive a high-quality education that makes balancing your work and studies easier!