Life-Cycle assessment (LCA) is a systematic approach used to manage the environmental impacts of products and service systems, and it is applied at several levels:

* Conceptually as a thought process that guides the selection of options for design and improvement.

* Methodologically as a way to build a quantitative/qualitative inventory of environmental burdens or releases, to evaluate the impacts of those burdens or releases, and to identify alternatives to improve environmental performance.

In any application, LCA considers the environmental impacts along the continuum of a product's life (i.e., cradle-to-grave) from raw-materials acquisition to production, use, and disposal or recovery. The environmental impacts to consider include resource-depletion, human health, and ecological health.

An important feature in this definition of life-cycle assessment is that it involves conceptual and data-intensive methodology elements. Life-cycle thinking is a way to address environmental problems from a systems or holistic perspective. In this way of thinking, a product or service is evaluated or designed with a goal of reducing environmental impacts over its entire life cycle.

Why should I be interested in LCA? A number of voluntary programs such as the EPA's 33/50 Program and Common Sense, the U.S. Executive Order on Environmentally Preferable Products, and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) environmental management tools and systems (including LCA) have surfaced in the last several years. Collectively, these programs create the need for a paradigm shift to identify and manage the environmental vulnerabilities of an organization's entire operation.

When one examines an organization's operations, it is the selling of products that drives the success of the business. An implication of this paradigm shift is the incorporation of environmental considerations into a product design and development process to manage the product's interface with the environment.

The interface with the environment is from extraction of natural resources to obtain materials to manufacture the product, to fuels such as coal and gas to produce energy and electricity, to the ultimate disposition of the final product. Strategies are being developed (e.g. pollution-prevention) to maximize the continued use of products and materials while minimizing environmental releases and energy consumed over the entire life cycle.

Product designers have long understood and practiced the complex science of integrating functional, technical, financial, and legal requirements within the design process. However, few designers have mastered the task of incorporating environmental considerations. LCA can quantify the environmental impacts along the entire life cycle of the product systems.

What is needed is a tool (or series of tools) that follows the design process, which embeds life-cycle information with business, financial, and technological measures, and that is simple to use. These tools will integrate the product life cycle and the environmental life cycle.

Market research uses techniques such as quality function deployment. R&D defines the technical parameters, and manufacturing is responsible for operational characteristics. During the design of a product, all those elements including decommissioning issues are considered. Weston has been developing and applying these types of tools.

What is the future of the auto industry? The auto industry will have integrated fully life-cycle environmental, cost, and technical considerations into the design, manufacture, use, maintenance, and disposition of its vehicles.

Life-cycle concepts are being implemented. The area of life-cycle assessment -- both the concept and the methodology -- has a valuable role to play in improving our understanding and reducing the environmental burdens associated with product and service systems from design and development through ultimate disposition.

While the LCA methodology is still evolving, the concept of life-cycling thinking is here to stay. It has application when linked with business, technical, and cost analyses as part of an overall Design for Environment (DFE) initiative. It gives us a new paradigm to continue the auto industry's worldwide leadership, and at the same time prevent pollution and sustain our resources for the future.