Environmental initiatives are very much within the reach of even small manufacturers. In fact, even with the big boys, it’s often the little things that make the real difference.

The subject of environmentally sustainable “green” manufacturing is so broad it can be overwhelming. On the one hand, there’s the scale of the problem. On the other there’s the scale of many of the solutions.
It’s all well and good that Ford Motor Co. can install a 10.4-acre grass-covered “living” roof on its storied River Rouge plant in Dearborn, MI, to help keep workers cool in the summer. But, how does a project like that apply to the thousands of smaller companies out with more limited budgets?

It’s the same thing with a number of other well publicized efforts that have been making headlines of late-think the $65 million solar roof on the General Motors plant in Zaragoza, Spain, or the 72,000 square feet of solar panels Airbus plans to install on top of its proposed A350 jetliner assembly facility in Toulouse, France.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways of reducing a company’s environmental footprint that don’t carry anywhere near as stiff a bill. In fact, even with the big boys, it’s often the little things that make the real difference.

The Subaru automotive assembly plant in Lafayette, IN, for example, hasn’t achieved “zero landfill” status solely through the use of sophisticated technologies like its paint solvent recovery system. On the contrary, in many cases it relies far more heavily on plain old common sense. Why throw away the plastic trays used to transport engines when they can just as easily be sent back to their point of origin for reuse? Why toss out the brass nuts that temporarily secure car wheels during assembly when they can be reused as well?

In addition to the literally thousands of tons of steel the plant recycles every year, Subaru and its employees also keeps tabs on the wood used in shipping pallets, and the cans and bottles that pass through the cafeteria. They even collect used rags. In 2007 alone, the company recycled 15 tons of cans and bottles, and four tons worth of old light bulbs.

The result? The 2.3 million square foot facility, which performs everything from stamping to final assembly and produces more than 100,000 vehicles every year, sends less material to the local landfill most of families.

It’s the same thing at Ford. Although it’s the company’s green roof and the electricity the company generates by recycling paint fumes that grabs headlines, about half of Ford’s energy savings come as a result of standard operating procedures-reusing and recycling materials and packaging that would otherwise have just been sent to the dump; turning off the lights when they are not needed; and incorporating incremental efficiency gains in capital equipment.

“This is not something that just came up recently. One of the fundamentals of running a plant is process discipline. It has always made good sense to do this,” says Ford’s former director of manufacturing Susan Brennan.

Todd Thornburg, technical services manager at the Illinois-based utility ComEd (Chicago) agrees. According to Thornburg, far too many companies fail to take advantage of any number of “no-cost, low-cost” opportunities that could provide them with big dollar savings at minimal effort.

He remembers one 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 too busy. Simply fixing the valve saved the company more than $800 per week.

“It just becomes part of the environment,” Thornburg says. “For a lot of manufacturers, these kinds of savings are staring them in the face every day.”

By doing simple things like reusing and recycling plastic tabs and the tape on trim pieces, the Subaru plant in Lafayette, IN, has reduced the amount of solid waste it generates to zero. Photo courtesy Subaru of Indiana Automotive Inc.

The Big Three

In terms of energy savings, the three biggest power users in most assembly plants are lighting systems, compressed air and electric motors.

With respect to lighting, today’s manufacturers have the option of swapping out their existing lighting system with one that uses more energy-efficient high-intensity fluorescent bulbs. These kinds of efforts are often eligible for funding through the government or a local utility. Companies can also simply make sure to shut off their lights when not in use, if necessary by installing occupancy sensors to activate them whenever somebody walks into the room.

Cessna Aircraft Co., for example, recently switched out the conventional high-intensity discharge lighting system at its plant in Wichita, KS, with some 4,200 T8 high-intensity fluorescent bulbs and fixtures from Orion Energy Systems (Manitowoc, WI). In the process, it not only improved light levels on the shop floor, but cut its electric bill by about $230,000 annually.

In all, Orion Energy says it has upgraded some 3,700 facilities throughout North America, in the process reducing its customers’ combined energy by about $400 million each year.

It’s the same things with compressed air. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE-Washington), generating compressed air accounts for 10 percent to 30 percent of the electricity consumed by the average manufacturing plant. By improving its compressed air systems, the typical assembler can reduce its electric bill by as much as 50 percent.

Amazingly, one of the biggest sources of waste is garden-variety leaks-in couplings, valves, joints, hoses, regulators and any of the other fittings found in a typical system. The cumulative effect of even a few small defects can reduce the effective output of a compressor by as much as half. Along these same lines, compressed air systems are often forced to work harder than needed as a result of dirty filters.

“If there’s a pressure problem in the plant, the first thing engineers consider is a new compressor,” says Thornburg, a veteran of literally thousands of energy audits. “But whenever you consider adding a compressor, that’s the best time to bring in outside help to look at your system, because most of the time you don’t need [it]. The problem is your distribution piping or how you’re using your compressed air.”

Along these same lines, Thornburg emphasizes that even the most efficient compressed air system needs to be maintained if it is going to stay that way. “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.”

With respect to electric motors, a number of manufacturers now offer systems that do more with less power, thanks to features like better laminations, better materials and more efficient cooling fans. Baldor Electric Co. (Fort Smith, AR), for example, manufactures a range of premium efficiency electric motors that not only surpass government standards, but can quickly pay for themselves through their reduced consumption.

Granted, a premium motor will carry a slightly higher price tag than a more conventional system. But it’s important to remember that the initial purchase price of an industrial motor represents only a fraction of its total cost. In fact, according to the DOE, a typical motor will consume anywhere from 50 to 60 times its initial purchase price in electricity in as little as a decade.

Although energy efficient motors cost more upfront, they will more than pay for themselves in the long run. Photo courtesy Baldor Electric Co.

Lean Times

Finally, there is the question of lean. The fact that the production system made famous by Toyota Motor Corp. is dedicated to the elimination of “waste” means it can work just as well helping out Mother Nature in addition to the bottom line. The same goes for Six Sigma.

Take the case of the IBM High-End Server Plant in Poughkeepsie, NY-the recipient of ASSEMBLY magazine’s 2008 Plant of the Year award. The facility is currently serving as a pilot site for what IBM calls its “Green Sigma” initiative, which was launched last summer. Based on the same Six Sigma methodologies that have been used for years to root out quality issues, Green Sigma uses those tools to reduce energy and water usage in an effort to minimize a facility’s environmental “footprint” along with its attendant cost.

“There’s a fundamental truth to understanding and improving any aspect of a company’s performance-if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” says Dave Lubowe, global leader of IBM’s operations strategy consulting practice, which is leading the initiative. “This applies as much to a company’s energy and water consumption as it does to anything else, and our new offering can help clients apply this principle to make their business greener.”

With respect to lean and the environment, what seems intuitive has recently been made explicit by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA-Washington) in what it calls its “Lean and the Environment Toolkit” (http://www.epa.gov/lean/leanenvironment.htm).

“Learning to see and eliminate waste is a cornerstone of lean initiatives. There is one type of waste, however, that often goes unaddressed (or under addressed) by lean initiatives-environmental waste,” the EPA says. “When grouped together, environmental wastes can result in huge costs to business. These costs include raw material and disposal costs, as well as costs for compliance management activities and pollution control equipment.”

Again, the solution here doesn’t involve new technologies so much as a new way of thinking-of looking at waste and its cost to the environment in addition to its effect on a company’s balance sheet.

Value-stream mapping, for example, can be used to lessen an assembly line’s environmental effects as well as its labor costs. The same is true of a company’s kaizen events and 5S approach to creating a clean and safe workspace.

“Lean’s focus on eliminating non-value-added activity is excellent at driving down the volume of material, water, energy, chemical usage and wastes, producing important competitiveness and environmental benefits,” the EPA says. “The environmental risk and full lifecycle impacts that materials and chemicals pose to human health and the environment, however, are rarely considered during lean implementation. Learning to see environmental wastes during lean efforts can open significant business improvement opportunities, further strengthen lean results, and improve environmental performance.”