Getting Green on the Shop Floor
To say that industry and environmentalists don't always get along would be putting it mildly. Environmentalists are all about keeping the world in its natural state. Manufacturers are in the business of making money. It seems the two groups share little common ground.
Nevertheless, there has always been a kind of tacit industrial environmentalism in the sense that throwing away a whole lot of useful stuff, or using an inordinate amount of fuel or electricity is not good for business.
For example, executives at Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, MI) are fond of pointing to an early example of recycling on the part of their iconic founder, Henry. Apparently, it struck him one day that simply throwing away the material from the wooden crates used to ship wheels for the Model-T truck made no sense. So, he had the crates built in such a way that they could be pulled apart for use in the truck's bed liner.
Then there's the current mania for lean manufacturing. Say the word "lean," and the first thing that comes to mind is "waste"-something to be done away with by any means necessary.
In recent years, the trend toward energy efficiency and waste reduction has received a further boost in the form of increasing energy costs and globalization. Pitted against the advantages enjoyed by companies in Asia, South America and India, U.S. businesses have been forced to cut costs any way they can; and there's nothing like war in the Middle East, gun-toting guerrillas in oil-producing nations like Nigeria, and China's ballooning energy appetite to make production engineers wonder about the price of electricity.
Although difficult to quantify, an increasing number of assemblers are starting to think environmentalism might not be such a bad idea after all, as is evident in the many cost-effective and environmentally friendly technologies making inroads into the marketplace.
For example, Baldor Electric Co. (Fort Smith, AR) now manufactures a range of premium efficiency electric motors that surpass government standards and are capable of paying for themselves through their reduced consumption. Similarly, Ingersoll Rand Co. (Montvale, NJ) has developed a new generation of variable-drive Nirvana air compressors, which achieve 95 percent efficiencies throughout their power range. In May 2005, General Electric Co. (Fairfield, CT) unveiled what the company calls its "ecomagination" initiative, a broad-based effort that includes spending $1.5 billion annually to research a wide range of green technologies.
And don't kid yourself: GE isn't just doing this out of the goodness of its corporate heart.
"We will establish partnerships with our customers to tackle their most pressing environmental challenges... and we will use these technologies to improve our own energy efficiency and environmental performance," says CEO Jeff Immelt. "And we plan to make money doing it."
Indeed, according to Niel Golightly, director of sustainable business strategy at Ford, even Wall Street is beginning to look at the environmental sustainability of a company's business in addition to short-term economic performance. Admittedly, it's still early in the process, but according to Golightly, a growing number of mainstream analysts recognize that the efficient use of materials and energy indicates good operating practice in general. In a world of climate change and intense competition for existing energy stocks, sustainability means being better able to respond to threats or capitalize on opportunities as they arise.
"The space we're trying to explore here is that the needs of the environment and the needs of business are converging," Golightly says, adding that this stands in marked contrast to years past when the attitude was that doing the right thing for the environment came off the bottom line.
"There's still a large part of the business community that is reactive. But you see more businesses that are finding new ways to do things," agrees Dr. Mark B. Milstein, a professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University (Ithica, NY) and business research director of the Sustainable Enterprise Program at the World Resources Institute (Washington).
Putting it in language that can't help appealing to even the most hard-bitten industrialist, Immelt sums up the new thinking: "Increasingly for business, ‘green' is green."
How Assemblers Go Green
In terms of the strategies for putting these goals into practice, assemblers have many options, some of them obvious, some of them not so obvious.
In the former category, assemblers are becoming increasingly aware of the cost of the electricity used to run their motors and compressed air systems. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), compressed air systems account for 10 percent to 30 percent of the electricity used in a typical assembly plant. Eliminating inefficiencies-often just simple air leaks-can cut an assembler's electric bill by up to 50 percent. Dirty line filters and incorrectly sized fittings also handicap many air systems. Performing a comprehensive energy audit can bring these problems into focus, resulting in sometimes staggering increases in efficiency and cost savings.
Other areas that lend themselves to straightforward upgrades are the use of energy-efficient motors and lighting. According to the DOE, electric motors account for approximately 70 percent of the electricity used in manufacturing, and the typical motor consumes 50 to 60 times its purchase price in electricity in 10 years. It has been estimated that by using premium electric motors, U.S. manufacturers could save approximately $200 million in annual energy expenditures.
Similarly, many manufacturers could reap big savings simply by changing their lighting systems, and turning off lights and assembly equipment when their factories are closed. Currently, most plants use metal halide lamps or T12 fluorescent lamps with magnetic ballasts. By switching to T8 fluorescent lamps with electronic ballasts, assemblers can reduce both energy consumption and the number of lights that need to be installed.
In a sign of the times, Mark Hamann, a senior engineer with ComEd (Chicago) and a veteran of many industrial energy audits, notes that many companies are considering taking advantage of tax incentives created by the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005. Designed to promote greater efficiency in commercial lighting, and heating and ventilation, the law goes a long way toward defraying the cost of implementing new technologies.
Nonetheless, ComEd technical services manager Todd Thornburg warns that true process efficiency requires more than simply installing a new technology or system.
"Air leaks will spring up again over time...a premium motor may fail and maintenance may replace it with an oversized motor," Thornburg says. "[Energy efficiency] is not a one-time thing: It's an ongoing process and requires staying on top of it."
Tilting Toward Windmills?
At the more dramatic end of the spectrum, manufacturers are doing everything from creating eco-friendly manufacturing facilities to generating electrical power through the use of renewable energy sources to wringing greater energy efficiencies from their supply chains.
For example, Volvo Group (Goteborg, Sweden) is using a battery of technologies to make its truck assembly plant in Tuve, Sweden, entirely carbon dioxide free. Working with local utilities, Volvo is building five separate wind power plants as well as a cutting-edge biofuel facility. The project is scheduled for completion in 2007. Once the new facilities are on-line, Volvo will not only use the power for its own production processes. It will also sell any excess energy to the surrounding community.
"The greenhouse effect is a reality, and the automotive industry has a specific responsibility for coping with the emissions of carbon dioxide," says Volvo CEO, Leif Johansson. He emphasizes, though, that Volvo isn't doing this just for Mother Earth's sake. "This is not solely an admirable environmental effort. We also expect that it will eventually be profitable on a purely economic basis," Johansson says.
Here in the United States, DENSO International America Inc. (Southfield, MI) is doing everything from installing motion sensors that turn out the bathroom lights when they're not in use to looking for ways to convert cafeteria waste into diesel fuel to power trucks and other company vehicles.
At its manufacturing plant in Battle Creek, MI, the company has already cut $10,800 from its lighting bill by swapping out aluminum light shields for more efficient, clear plastic shielding. And it hopes to save another $35,000 by reducing light intensity. At its plant in Athens, TN, DENSO is saving $70,000 each year in utility costs and $10,000 in chemicals by taking three of the plant's seven cooling towers off-line in the winter when they aren't needed.
Similarly, Texas Instruments Inc. (Dallas) is incorporating a range of technologies in a new, 1.1-million-square-foot semiconductor plant, set to open this year in Richardson, TX. In addition to a rainwater storage pond and native-plant landscaping, the $3 billion facility will use natural daylight to augment electric lighting, reflective roofing to reduce the need for air conditioning, and solar water heaters that will cut the need for outside energy.
And again, these steps aren't just about doing good for good's sake. The company hopes that by implementing these measures it will be able to cut utility costs by as much as 20 percent.
One of the true leaders in terms of environmentally aware manufacturing is Ford Motor Co. Its revamped Rouge River facility in Detroit has garnered tremendous press with its "green" roof-which is covered with grass and wildflowers to reduce rainwater runoff. But the company is also exploring dozens of other technologies as part of a truly comprehensive, long-term energy policy.
Like the Volvo plant in Tuve, Ford's Dagenham diesel engine plant, on the outskirts of London, includes a pair of 400-foot-tall wind turbines, which provide the plant with all the energy that it needs. Similarly, the company is using a "fumes to fuel" system to cut electrical usage in the paint shop at its truck plant in Wayne, MI-historically an energy-intensive production area-by running an electrical generator off the shop's own paint fumes.
Another area in which Ford is breaking new ground is in product design and supply chain logistics.
For example, in one application, Ford and researchers at Georgia Tech's center for Environmentally Conscious Design & Manufacturing (Atlanta) are looking at how the company specs its transmission gears.
Historically, these gears have been manufactured with ultrasmooth finishes to extremely tight tolerances to help eliminate noise and vibration in the final assembly. However, in doing so, the gears may be overdesigned for the problem at hand. By looking at the overall manufacturing process, Ford may be able to create gears to a slightly lower tolerance, while still maintaining overall transmission performance. This will cut down on the amount of grinding and honing that must be done on each gear, which, in turn, could yield, significant environmental savings.
In terms of supply chain efficiency, Ford is wringing out environmental waste by reevaluating both the packaging and modes of transport that it uses. For example, in Europe, Ford is switching to river barges in the place of trucks wherever possible, and drivers are being instructed in economical driving practices whenever trucks are still necessary. In the United States, the company has cut CO2 emissions from its truck fleet by 15 percent over the last 5 years, in part by reducing the number of truck miles driven.
In the area of packaging, the company is developing recyclable shipping containers that can be ground up into new car parts, an effort reminiscent of Henry Ford's Model-T bed liners.
In a pilot program being developed with Georgia Tech, transmission parts from China are transported in a container made of recyclable polypropylene, as opposed to cardboard. The material offers a number of advantages in that it is durable and doesn't create potentially part-damaging fibers the way the cardboard had. Better still, instead of being simply thrown away, the containers are ground up and melted down to make splash shields for Ford's automotive division-not a bad move considering that historically the cardboard packing that was thrown away required the cutting down of some 2,500 trees.
Still, for all that these initiatives tend to grab headlines, Ford director of manufacturing Susan Brennan emphasizes that it's the little things that make the difference at the end of the day. For example, in the case of Ford, Brennan says that while half of the company's recent energy efficiency gains have resulted from new initiatives and cutting-edge technology, half the energy savings are the result of standard operating procedures.
"This is not something that just came up recently," she says. "One of the fundamentals of running a plant is process discipline.... It has always made good sense to do this."
ComEd's Thornburg agrees, noting that many companies are not taking advantage of "no-cost, low-cost" opportunities that could provide them with big dollar savings at minimal effort. He remembers one particular case in which an assembler's 700-horsepower air compressor was running all weekend, even though the plant was closed. Apparently, there was a problem with a stuck valve, but no one had noticed it, basically because everybody was just too busy. Simply fixing the valve saved the company more than $800 per week.
"It just becomes part of the environment," Thornburg says of these kinds of insidious inefficiencies. "For a lot of manufacturers, these kinds of savings are staring them in the face every day."