Your Design Has a Water Footprint—and Why You Should Care
Roopinder Tara posted on January 22, 2021 |
Dassault Systèmes 3DEXPERIENCE platform to measure water cost of product and processes.
Veteran explorer Mike Horn shows how thick the Arctic ice was 15 years ago. It was reduced to a few centimeters on his last expedition. (Picture from video, courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)
Veteran explorer Mike Horn shows how thick the Arctic ice was 15 years ago. It was reduced to a few centimeters on his last expedition. (Picture from video, courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)
“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”

--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

It’s a crazy world. You worry about your job, about COVID, about being cut off from everyone you hold dear, about your country—and whatever upheavals it is going through. You don’t necessarily worry about water.

But you should, says Bernard Charlès, CEO of Dassault Systèmes. Charlès requests that we look at the bigger picture, not whatever is bothering us at the moment in our little worlds—the first world for most of us, limited worlds with unlimited resources, with clean fresh water coming out of our taps—Flint, Mich., excepted. In the rest of the world, clean fresh water is scarce. There, people stand in line at handpumps to fill jerry cans. There, surface water can be so polluted it stinks—even burns.

Dassault Systèmes, makers of CATIA, SOLIDWORKS and most recently, the 3DEXPERIENCE, the software that designed our cars is woke to the cars’ thirst for water. Over 39,000 gallons of water are expended in the making of an automobile, according to its Progress Is Human site. All that metal and plastic stamps an immense water footprint. Water consumption of a design is not something that engineers have ever considered. Only recently have we been forced to reckon with carbon footprint.

But Charlès is no ordinary engineer. A mechanical engineer by education (a PhD in automation engineering and information science from France’s Institut Supérieur de Matériaux et de la Construction Mécanique - ISMCM), the Dassault Systèmes of today is largely his creation. First famous for CATIA and its unrivalled robustness for surface design that made it the tool of choice to shape every vehicle, Dassault Systèmes was to add much in the way of engineering, manufacturing and PLM products, filling the toolkit for large enterprises. Joined by other enterprise PLM vendors (PTC and Siemens), Dassault Systèmes under Charlès’ leadership shines brightest with its world view, a universal consciousness and a commitment to place technology in the context of humanity.

Bernard Charlès partners with Mike Horn on the need to save fresh water in “The Only Progress is Human.” (Picture courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)
Bernard Charlès partners with Mike Horn on the need to save fresh water in “The Only Progress is Human.” (Picture courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

Dassault Systèmes launched “Water for Life,” part of its “The Only Progress Is Human” directed toward what Charlès has long espoused: to harmonize technology, the environment and society, or as he puts it, product, nature and life.

Charlès’ counterpart on the “Water for Life” project is South African born, ex-rugby playing, veteran explorer Mike Horn. Having swam down the Amazon, climbed 26,000-foot peaks without oxygen and crossed the Earth the hard way—from the North Pole to the South Pole—and other adventures, this tough guy is almost reduced to tears when describing how man has ravaged the Earth. Horn encountered polar bears every 2 to 3 days in one polar expedition 15 years ago but saw none on the last expedition. Ice floes that were 3 meters had been reduced to 8 centimeters.

Horn is eager to team up with industrial leaders to slow the damage, and he seems to have found a kindred soul in Bernard Charlès.

Watch Water for Life and see Charlès explain to Horn about a water footprint—and its opposite. Everyone basically understands, he says. They’ve all heard so much about carbon footprints. Still, no one bothers to measure the water footprint.

“Take your shirt, for example,” said Charlès to Horn. “Precisely how much water was used to create the textile, how much to color it?”

Charlès introduces Horn to the idea of water footprint’s opposite, the handprint. From a 2015 Dassault/Harvard paper “Handprints of Product Innovation: A Case Study of Computer-aided Design in the Automotive Sector,” a handprint has a positive effect on the environment, whereas a footprint has a negative one. A handprint comes from a proactive effort, like when you improve a product’s net impact on the Earth at the design phase—before the cost of a drop of water or the creation of a carbon molecule.

Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE platform will be used to help manufacturers measure and optimize their water footprint with integrated applications that draw data on the water consumption associated with the products they create and the processes they use Charlès promises. The company plans to have AI-generated recommendations to help engineers make more sustainable products and provide more sustainable services.

Water: A Decreasing Supply

Animals are thought to have emerged from the oceans to land around 500 million years ago—but they never left the ocean completely behind. Our blood is mostly water, and the watery part, called plasma, has the same concentration of salt and other ions as does ocean water. However, in some kind of biological mix-up, we require fresh water (not ocean water) to survive, not just for our own consumption but also for the crops and livestock we consume.  We will last no more than a few days without fresh water.

We tend to crowd around sources of fresh water and throughout history have fought for water and civilizations have perished from the lack of it. The West’s “cradle of civilization,” situated north of the Nile and between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the present-day Middle East is also known as the birthplace of war. A drought is theorized to have ended the 19 million-strong Mayan civilization in the 8th or 9th century. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam completed last summer across the Nile is enough to make Egyptians threaten to go to war with Ethiopia.

Where Does It Go?

From A Guide to the World’s Fresh Water Resources by Igor Shiklomanov, 1993. (Image courtesy of
From A Guide to the World’s Fresh Water Resources by Igor Shiklomanov, 1993. (Image courtesy of

Fresh water falls from the sky, part of an unending cycle, opposite the natural evaporation from ocean water. With every living thing on land consuming it, you might think that the supply of fresh water would decrease with the increase of populations of living things. However, land organisms give up as much water as they take in, in one way or the other. The water is not elementally altered, so there should be a net-zero change in the fresh water supply. You might argue that there is more water stored now in animals and crops (7 billion-plus humans and billions of tons of domestic animals, water for increasing the amount of crop land). But the amount of water in living things is only 0.26 percent of all the fresh water on or above the surface of the planet. You might expect that fresh water is increasingly in the air with climate change. The Clausius-Clapeyron equation predicts an increase in the water holding capacity of air of approximately 7 percent per degree Celsius rise in temperature. However, the total amount of fresh water held in the atmosphere is only 3 percent of all the fresh water of the fresh surface water.

The decreasing amount of usable fresh water may best be explained by the increase in water pollution. We still think nothing of dumping our garbage into our oceans (ever minute, by the truckload, according to Dassault Systèmes) or of flushing chemicals and raw sewage into rivers. Rivers are diverted to irrigate fields and stopped by dams. Some rivers are reduced to trickles where they meet the oceans. Some rivers have stopped flowing altogether and allow ocean water to travel upriver, salting the land and making it unproductive to crops. Other rivers, like the Mississippi, are so full of fertilizer runoff from fields that the water, unable to absorb oxygen, grows toxic algae, making a 6,500-square-mile dead zone off the river’s delta.

A United Effort

The “Only Progress Is Human” campaign is in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #6 for clean water and sanitation.

A key part of the campaign focuses on education, according to Charlès. La Fondation Dassault Systèmes was set up by the company to support teachers, students and researchers in not-for-profit projects. Since its creation in 2015, the foundation has supported more than 130 projects around the world, according to its website.

“Virtual universes are a key enabler for our customers to imagine, design, and test the radically new products, materials and manufacturing processes needed in tomorrow’s more sustainable economy,” says Charlès in the press release. “Through new industry solutions, we can become the world’s number one partner for a more sustainable industry renaissance that meets Paris Agreement goals.” 

Southern California mountain range with aqueduct pumps used to pump the water from the California aqueduct over the mountain range.
Southern California mountain range with aqueduct pumps used to pump the water from the California aqueduct over the mountain range.

Our need for water should make it the second most important thing in our lives, second only to air. But at least in modern, Western industrial societies, water continues to be taken for granted. Water in California is expected to be delivered to where we have settled, even if we have settled in areas that were scrub land that barely sustained life before. The government was expected to provide water for us. And they did, moving heaven and Earth in the process.

A similar casual view of water is taken when we design products, farm, or make our structures. While studies of water footprints of agricultural processes and products abound, the water footprints of common industrial building material—specifically steel, cement and glass—are relatively unknown but enormously significant, according to the Water Resources and Industry journal.

The use of 3D modeling and virtual systems to optimize the design and use of material seems easy enough to grasp, even for a veteran explorer. However, the key to adopting a water-conscious design system will be obtaining accurate data about the quantity of water consumed by the materials and manufacturing processes that engineers specify. In addition, the system will have to be easy to use. A 3DEXPERIENCE that can update the water footprint of a part as changes are made to it, in real time, without waiting for an analysis would be ideal.

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