Global report: Green manufacturing

In a time of incessant international trade, commercial road transport has become a valuable resource. It is the driving force behind today’s just-in-time, low-inventory supply chain, moving almost everything you can find in the neighbourhood grocery store, thereby ensuring a high quality of life.

But it is also a carbon-intensive industry that has a significant impact on the environment at large. While mass media keep discussing trucking’s contribution to our environmental footprint, they often fail to look at the industry’s commitment to change and the effort already made to reduce energy consumption.

And even if they do look at technological progress, the discussion is often focused on the use of suitable equipment to reduce tare weight and increase payload per kilometre. The manufacturing side, however, is usually overlooked in the ‘green’ debate.

One reason may be that the notion of ‘green manufacturing’ is somewhat ambiguous. It can describe the manufacture of ‘green’ technology used to diminish carbon cost, for instance, or to the ‘greening’ of manufacturing itself – reducing pollution and waste by minimising natural resource use, recycling and reusing what was previously considered waste.

Whatever the definition, more and more businesses are finding that reducing resource use, waste, and pollution, along with recycling and reusing waste can make a notable difference – not only in regard to employee motivation, morale, and public relations, but also on the balance sheet.

In fact, there is ample scientific data proving that economic potential and social responsibility are equally driving environmental change. To determine the actual impact on the manufacturing and supply chain sector, Hanover Research has examined two large-scale surveys undertaken in the US.

A 2011 Affinity Research Solutions survey of 368 industry professionals, sponsored by the Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA), provided the bulk of the data. Hanover additionally examined an older 2009 BPM Forum survey of 125 supply chain, operations, finance, and executive professionals

“The top three factors companies say are driving green initiatives are social responsibility (78 per cent), greater efficiencies (63 per cent), and management directives (59 per cent),” says Hanover’s Brent Dupay.

But while a large majority of the organisations surveyed by MHIA considered green initiatives at least very important, more than half (52 per cent) did not have a formal green initiative underway at the time of the study. Why do many organisations view green initiatives as important but do not have green initiatives?

“The most common obstacle, by far, is the cost,” says Dupay. “Many companies do not believe the cost of buying new equipment or changing operational practices justifies the return on that investment. In other words, many organisations think environmental sustainability is important, but this concern is secondary to the bottom line. Among MHIA survey respondents, cost was cited as the most common obstacle to green initiatives.”

According to Professor David Dornfeld, Chair of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California in Berkeley and head of the university’s Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability, that reluctance will soon evaporate when more companies realise that environmental performance does affect the bottom line.

“All of [the companies in the industry] are concerned about increasing productivity, improving or controlling quality, ensuring they are flexible enough in their production to respond to rapidly changing consumer needs, (…) while being energy and material efficient and sustainable. That is, green,” he says.

But according to Dornfeld, adding a green nuance to the mission statement is just the first step. The second step is acknowledging green manufacturing as a   of sustainable management, which would also include a whole new take on training and education – especially in an increasingly automated industry sector where the right education is key to productivity, quality, and re-configurability.

According to Dornfeld, only a professional, systematic approach to green thinking will help the industry save money in the long run. “Cutting expenses is part of making money. And reducing energy consumption, increasing yield, increasing material utilisation efficiency, as well as minimising waste all add to the bottom line.”

As a result, he is demanding a basic training on energy, earth abundant materials, and green and sustainable technology to ensure the future competitiveness of the manufacturing segment. “It is education that makes individuals competitive in any field, including manufacturing. It is education in manufacturing that offers a career to a wide range of individuals and not just those ‘on the coasts’ making apps to engage in and keep track of our social network.

“And it is the application of this education to manufacturing (…) that offers real optimism. Make sure that education addresses both the core needs of a business – throughput and productivity, quality, and flexibility – but also insures those core needs are met with lowest impact and most efficient use of resources.”

According to Hanover’s data, Dornfeld’s call for a ‘change of thinking’ is not only reasonable, but also urgent. 58 per cent of those surveyed by BPM Forum already consider the environmental impact of their suppliers and vendors when calculating their own carbon and energy footprint, effectively forcing the industry to change. In that sense, green manufacturing is intimately entwined with the movement toward taking on, or accepting, greater corporate social responsibility.

However, there is no notable push from the client side as yet. “76 per cent of those surveyed by BPM reported that customers had not asked them to reveal or measure their carbon or energy footprint,” says Dupay. “Only 42 per cent of companies surveyed by MHIA cited customer pressure as a driving factor in the adoption of green initiatives.”

Industry experts like David Dornfeld expect that pressure to grow rapidly in the time to come. “With population growth and the accompanying growth in demand – even in the teeth of a recession – just ‘business as usual’ will drive increased unsustainable trends. This means we need to have a compounded reduction in our impact/use that considers both the increases in demand and the difference between a sustainable and unsustainable level of consumption/impact,” he says.

“This offers real challenges to engineers, specially with respect to the manufacture and production of goods. If we are not today operating at a ‘sustainable level’ then we need to adjust our processes, systems and enterprises to get to that level over time.”

After all, the idea of ‘greening’ the manufacturing sector is not new. In the midst of the GFC, Alan Richter of Cutting Tool Engineering Magazine suggested reducing the amount of energy the motors on a metal cutting machine tool use. Referring to Scott Hibbard, vice president of technology for Bosch Rexroth, Richter presented a real-life example: “A method to reduce a machine tool’s energy consumption is to replace a single-speed motor with a variable-speed or servo drive. Traditionally, variable-speed drives were used only when an end user needed a motor that operated at different speeds in an application and servodrives only when there was a high-precision requirement, such as specific acceleration or CNC positioning.”

Hibbard added, “It was always thought of as way too expensive to use those. In many applications, you can throttle down the motor with a variable-speed drive to consume less energy, especially if you’re wasting energy with friction and turning it into heat. For every dollar increase in a barrel of oil, the payback comes sooner.”

According to Hibbard, instead of wasting that energy, it can be reused within a plant similar to how a hybrid vehicle’s regenerative braking system helps charge the battery pack when the vehicle brakes or decelerates.

At least since the GFC, ideas like that have gained ground on the corporate level. Corporate and business leaders at the forefront of redesigning, restructuring, re-engineering, and retooling operations and processes to be more environmentally and socially sustainable are now finding that doing so produces measurable results that others can and would like to emulate, even leading to new business lines and a notable recognition for their efforts.

Today, that recognition can even come from the very top. International organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank are being joined by a host of public, non-profit, and private sector organisations in promoting and acknowledging green manufacturing.

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