Companies Find Many Happy Returns in Green Manufacturing

By Sara Pearson Specter for MHI Solutions

There are many areas in which changes—small or large—can be made to boost a manufacturer’s sustainability, including product design and packaging, facilities, materials, process, machinery, transportation, suppliers and supply chain network. But, for more manufacturers, the decision about which area to focus on is no longer just about being green in the sustainable sense—it’s also about the color of money.

“Companies often will compare the environmental benefits of an initiative against its cost—they’re looking for things that have the biggest bang for the buck,” says David Dornfeld, PhD and Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the Green Manufacturing Blog.

Because of that, energy conservation, lowering emissions and cutting carbon use throughout the supply chain have become the top focus of manufacturers pursuing a green goal, says Simon Jacobson, Research Vice President and Manufacturing Analyst at Gartner. “It’s a natural progression from traditional Lean and Six Sigma efforts that seek to eliminate waste. We see a lot of corporate programs designed from the top down, but implemented from the bottom up.”

To find the highest return on investment opportunities for energy savings, vast volumes of information have to be tracked over multiple tiers of the supply chain. In other words, says Dornfeld, “before changing all the light bulbs, manufacturers should look at their financials and see what materials are purchased and used, then determine which one has the biggest potential for savings relative to an aspect of environmental impact.”

To gain a better understanding of a process’ utilization of resources, manufacturers are gathering more data than ever before.

“Companies have always tracked overall equipment effectiveness as a measure of productivity,” Jacobson notes. “Now they’re adding other variables, like energy consumption, into the equation. They’re looking to establish a clear,
common set of metrics to find across their facilities.”

For example, an automotive manufacturer that Dornfeld has researched plotted energy use as a function of time to determine that “when they were operating at full production versus when they were not, there was only a delta of about 20%,” he recalls. “That prompted them to figure out which machines were running when they didn’t need to be, what processes required a high set-point that could be cycled down to save energy, and where compressed air could be turned off when it wasn’t in use.”

But how do companies go about extracting and analyzing all that data? Through investments in information technology (IT), Jacobson says: “Manufacturers seek technologies that can amalgamate various data points from different sources into a series of key performance indicators (KPIs) to help determine how a process should be run to achieve the highest yield at lowest cost and energy expenditure.”

Right now, the top manufacturing IT expenditure is on mobility technology as an enabler to achieve sustainability goals, say Aberdeen Group colleagues Mariela Koenig, Manufacturing Research Director, and Reid Paquin, Manufacturing Senior Research Associate.

“Manufacturers are using mobility technologies—like smart sensors, phones and tablets—not only for data collection, but also for compliance, audits and threshold alerts,” says Koenig. “And, they’re combining it with analytics and cloud computing to identify inefficiencies to optimize workflows.”

Mobility technologies enable real-time collaboration between manufacturers and suppliers, while automating collection of data they need to determine their carbon footprint, she adds.

Further, organizations need to communicate internally to acquire their datasets, notes Dornfeld, otherwise they may miss significant opportunities for better green practices simply due to their internal corporate structure. “If a Chief Sustainability Officer is not associated with the production and purchasing people, it could be very easy to overlook where the biggest impact could be,” he cautions.

That heightened level of collaboration is precisely why the food and beverage industry has become a top performer when it comes to going green, notes Aberdeen’s Paquin.

Manufacturers in all industries are trying to optimize their processes to increase their energy efficiency, but in food and beverage companies, “all of their functional groups—facilities, production and engineering—work together, which grants greater visibility into their operations,” he says. “Taking it a step further, they factor in energy and carbon into the design phase for their products or processes to eliminate waste and inefficiencies before production begins.”

That’s a trend confirmed by Bob Gates, Global Manufacturing Industry Director of GE’s Intelligent Platforms business, which provides industrial software and manufacturing control platforms to companies worldwide.

“The really sophisticated manufacturers have figured out how to adjust their production scheduling based on each processes’ electrical demand,” he explains. “They look at what their energy cost is for each unit they produce, and then utilize their software and controls to manipulate their machinery use so as not to pay peak load prices.”

Additionally, Gates describes how a company with a two-mile-long inline conveyor system made adjustments to its control and scheduling system in order to sequentially turn on different sections shortly before they were actually needed—rather than turning everything on at once.

“By spacing their power use out over a two hour period, they saved $10 million a year in their electric use,” he says. “Companies are figuring out how to turn the power off when they don’t need it as a means to save energy and save money.”

Further, manufacturers are looking across their full network of facilities and reallocating their product mix to ensure that they’re making the product in the region where it’s consumed, particularly in the food and beverage sector,
notes Gates. “Producing locally can be a much smarter, greener and more cost effective way to make products, rather than making your worldwide supply in one location and distributing it via truck to multiple distant locations,” he says.

So green really is green, concludes Gates: “Manufacturers are figuring out that their customers want products that are made in a way that is good for the planet, and if they do it right, it’s a lot
cheaper for them too.”

Read more from MHI Solutions.

Sara Pearson Specter has written for MODERN Materials Handling and Material Handling Product News as an Editor at Large since 2001. She has 15-plus years in graphic design, advertising,
marketing and public relations, with a special emphasis on helping businessto-business industrial and manufacturing companies.