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Moving Past People, Planet, Profit

Kip Hanson
By Kip Hanson Contributing Editor, SME Media

If you’re a reader of books like “Green Giants” and “Climate of Hope,” you might recognize that this article’s catchy title isn’t original. It’s from entrepreneur John Elkington, a prolific author and an expert on global sustainability and corporate responsibility, who coined the phrase in 1994 as part of a broader initiative to spur industrial leaders into prioritizing the first two words—people and planet—over the more traditional corporate motivator: profit.

Elkington’s efforts since then have admittedly borne less fruit than he’d hoped. In a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, he proposed a “strategic recall” of his triple bottom line (TBL), noting that “our climate, water resources, oceans, forests, soils, and biodiversity are all increasingly threatened.” Even more disappointing, from Volans — the company Elkington founded in 2008—is this admonishment: “If our unsustainability hasn’t profoundly shocked you, then you haven’t fully understood it yet.”

Building Better Plants

It’s understandable. Our current political climate tends to label us as either climate deniers or tree huggers, creating a contentious landscape of talking heads arguing about carbon footprints, fossil fuels, green energy, and how many grams of microplastic we consume each year. In this black-and-white world, it seems there’s no middle ground for those seeking to reconcile sustainability with corporate profits and growth. Or is there?

John O’Neill thinks so. The technology manager for the Industrial Efficiency and Decarbonization Office of the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) in Washington, D.C., he pointed out that organizations participating in the DoE’s Better Plants program have saved more than $10.6 billion in energy costs—equal to 2.2 quadrillion BTUs—since the program’s founding in 2011.

More than 270 partners, including General Motors, Lockheed Martin, Intel, and Alcoa, represent 3,600 manufacturing facilities across the United States and 14 percent of its combined energy footprint. “Some of our members are large multinationals looking to reduce their energy usage and waste emissions, while others are mom-and-pop shops who come to us saying, ‘I sure would like to save some money and be more competitive,’” said O’Neill. “In either case, we’re able to help.”

West of downtown Denver on South Table Mountain in Golden, Colorado stands the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory which specializes in solar, wind, alternative fuels, geothermal and other renewable energy research and development.

According to the DoE website, Better Plants is just as its name implies, a program that works with leading U.S. manufacturers and wastewater treatment agencies to set ambitious energy, water, waste, and carbon reduction goals and commit to reducing energy intensity by 25 percent over a 10-year period across all U.S. operations.

“We encourage manufacturers interested in decreasing carbon emissions and increasing energy efficiency to join DoE’s Better Climate Challenge, part of the Better Buildings/Better Plants program,” O’Neill continued. “These organizations set a public goal with us—a 50 percent emissions reduction over 10 years for the Challenge and/or a 25 percent energy efficiency improvement for Better Plants. We encourage partners to do both, and we then provide a range of technical assistance to help those manufacturers achieve their goals.”

It’s important to note that embracing sustainability doesn’t require government support. Recycling waste material, investing in solar panels or high-efficiency lighting, reducing water usage and greenhouse gas emissions—these are just a few of the steps that manufacturers of all kinds and sizes can take on their own to “build a better plant,” all of which can lead to big dividends for people, planet, and profit alike.

The Perfect Package

There’s also packaging. “We’re seeing a lot of demand on this from both sides of the coin. Consumers in general want more sustainable goods and that includes the packaging those products arrive in, while OEMs are very cognizant of the fact that they have aggressive environmental, social, and governance [ESG] goals that must be attained over the next few years. Here again, packaging plays a big role in that trend.”

That’s according to Raymond Wodar, global director of business consulting for the consumer packaged goods (CPG) and retail industry at Dassault Systèmes, who explained that manufacturers are turning to some innovative alternatives for packaging feedstocks. For example, Coca-Cola Company introduced the “world’s first fully recyclable bottle made partially from plants” in 2009, a move that reportedly reduced CO2 emissions by an amount equal to that generated by 1 million motor vehicles. Biopak of Australia and New Zealand began producing compostable packaging from renewable plant-based materials, while New York-based Evocative Design aims to reduce Styrofoam use by growing insulative, water-resistant packaging from hemp hurds and mycelium.

According to Dassault Systèmes, consumers want more sustainable goods while OEMs are very aware that they have aggressive environmental, social, and governance goals that must be attained over the next few years. (Provided by Dassault Systèmes)

Whether it’s for a soda bottle or spaceship component, selecting the wrong material can cost millions in recalls, rework, and redesign. Wodar said Dassault Systèmes helps companies avoid these difficulties with robust engineering and simulation tools that eliminate guesswork. Manufacturers can identify potential failure points, analyze mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties, and optimize product design and manufacturing processes long before the first die is cut or mold machined. This not only reduces economic risk but shortens development cycles, allowing companies to bring products to market more quickly at a lower cost.

“Since the dawn of single-use plastics, there has never been a good economic model to loop them back into the system for reuse,” Wodar said. “So, we ended up with the raw feedstock—which is made from petrochemicals—ending up in a landfill somewhere, burned in a furnace, or floating in the ocean. By moving to sustainable materials that have a circular recycling path, it’s a win-win for all involved—the manufacturer, the consumer, and the environment.”

Sustainable Dreams

Okuma is another company with a keen eye toward sustainability. In 2019, the machine tool builder completed its third “Dream Site” in Japan, a facility that defines the term “smart factory” with its high levels of automation and IIoT technology, thereby maximizing efficiency, throughput, and flexibility. But Okuma has also placed notable emphasis on green manufacturing by installing thousands of solar panels on each of its sites, reducing energy by 30 percent, while also paying special attention to reducing particulates during the machining process.

Jim Kosmala, vice president of engineering and technology at Okuma America Corp., Charlotte, N.C., said the company is bringing these green concepts to its customers. Its ECO suite reduces energy consumption on CNC machine tools by automatically idling or slowing peripheral equipment such as chip conveyors, hydraulic pumps, and cooling units when not in use. An onboard power monitor shows machine operators how much electricity is being consumed, while regenerative motor technology captures energy during spindle and axis deceleration. The result is a 74 percent reduction in power consumption during non-cutting times, and an average overall savings of 13 percent or more.

“It’s all programmable, so equipment owners have full control over what turns off and when,” said Kosmala. “There’s also a sleep function, just like on your laptop—just push the button when you’re going to lunch or home for the night and it all goes into idle mode. Push it again, and within a few seconds, everything’s back on, ready to make parts.”

Those are impressive figures, especially for shops in states with high energy costs. Yet Kosmala pointed out that one of the best ways to increase sustainability is to produce parts in fewer operations. Five-axis machining centers and multitasking lathes, he said, eliminate work-in-process (WIP). Because parts are often “one and done,” there’s less time wasted on setups and no need to build workholding fixtures for subsequent (now unnecessary) operations, nor is there as much risk of scrapping out parts after investing countless hours of machining time—components come off the mill or lathe largely complete, in some cases ready to place into an environmentally friendly package and shipped to the customer. 

“If you shorten the processing time, you’re automatically reducing your carbon footprint because you’re not running the machine as long,” he said. “You also have the opportunity to make more parts each day, which in turn makes the shop more profitable.”

Machine tool builder Okuma recently completed another “dream site” in Japan, a facility that not only defines the term “smart factory” but places strong emphasis on green manufacturing practices. (Provided by Okuma America)

Printing Green

Additive manufacturers enjoy similar opportunities. Rich Garrity, chief industrial business officer at Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Stratasys Ltd., suggested that AM is by its very nature a more efficient process and will become even more so as it makes its way more into high-volume part production. “For starters, you’re only printing what you need, which means there’s much less material waste,” he said. “In addition, there’s no tooling or WIP to speak of, and the parts are inherently lighter, so they cost less to ship.”

It’s this last attribute—lightweighting—that’s most exciting to the transportation industry, and accounts for much of 3D printing’s growing popularity in the aerospace field. But it’s AM’s digital nature that stands to provide the most significant benefits in terms of energy savings. That’s because 3D printing delivers parts on demand, where they’re needed, when they’re needed. Finished goods inventories are reduced or eliminated, while lengthy supply chains are shortened to a single link or two. This, said Garrity, will make more manufacturing companies recognize the value of localized production of certain components.

“If you consider the transportation costs and amount of energy devoted to moving parts all over the world, 3D printing will dramatically impact the way things get made. We’re not yet seeing this because it’s only used in certain manufacturing applications. But as the process improves—as it grows more reliable and repeatable and we have a broader material offering—3D printing’s adoption will increase exponentially.”

Sustainability Through Standards

Katherine “KC” Morris is all about standards and standardization. That’s not surprising, considering that she leads the Life Cycle Engineering Group at Gaithersburg, Md.-based NIST EL SID (short for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Engineering Laboratory, Systems Integration Division). NIST’s mission, she stated, is “to promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.”

Joe Gibbs Racing #20 car driven by Christopher Bell featuring 3D printed windshield air cockpit ventilation unit by Stratasys Direct Manufacturing for all NASCAR Next Gen cars. The ventilation units are 3D printed using Stratasys High Yield PA11, which is derived from sustainable castor oil. (Provided by Stratasys)

Morris also serves as co-chair of ASTM E60.13 on sustainable manufacturing leading new efforts on digitization of manufacturing processes and for circularity of manufacturing materials. “When I started in this industry, computers were just entering the market,” she said. “There were no digital models back then—companies drew blueprints of the products they wanted to make, which they then delivered to the shop floor for manufacturing. Some manufacturers still work this way, but most have adopted digital representations of their parts.”

What does this brief history lesson have to do with sustainability? Plenty. Digitalization, Morris said, makes manufacturing more efficient. It allows designers to include more information about the component or assembly than does a paper drawing, and it provides greater connectivity to other aspects of the production process. Digitalization reduces waste, and as waste goes down, sustainability goes up.

Her comments echo those of Okuma’s Kosmala, who suggested that shorter processing times and fewer processing steps reduce manufacturing’s carbon footprint while making the company more profitable. Both are correct. “The primary driver of smart manufacturing is to improve overall efficiency,” Morris asserted. “And the more you improve efficiency, the more you reduce unwanted impacts like waste, emissions, and energy consumption.”

Striving for higher levels of efficiency on the shop floor is far from a new concept, even if the reasons for it are beginning to lean more toward people and planet rather than profit. What’s changed is the technology. Morris ticked off numerous improvements over recent years, among them model-based engineering (MBE), Standard for the Exchange of Product model data (STEP) files as described under ISO 10303, and the digital twin, all of which serve to make product lifecycle management easier and more effective.

The result? Companies enjoy better visibility into their products and processes and can more readily design each with sustainability in mind. “There’s another new term, which originated in Europe around a decade ago,” said Morris. “It’s called the digital product passport, and it collects information about a product’s usage over its lifespan. Consider the lithium battery in a hybrid-electric car. When it’s reached the vehicle’s end of life, the battery might still be useful for other, less demanding purposes, but you’d never know that without data about its performance over time, the operating environment, how much it’s been used, and so on. By implementing a digital passport strategy, we’d be able to fully utilize products that might otherwise go to the recycling center, or worse, a landfill.”

Picking the Fruit

Between 3D printing, high-tech CNC machine tools, more earth-friendly packaging, and efficiency improvements on the factory floor and elsewhere, the possibilities for greater sustainability are endless. So how do you get started? DoE’s O’Neill has some advice: talk to his colleague John Smegal, the coordinator for the agency’s Industrial Assessment Centers (IAC).

Smegal won’t tell you what equipment to buy or how to automate for unattended machining, but he will help facilitate an assessment of your factory and make suggestions on ways to cut energy consumption and waste. For example, an oil and gas machinery manufacturer in Louisiana reduced its annual energy costs by $801,000 after following IAC recommendations. A producer of ball and roller bearings in West Virginia enjoys a $99,000 savings each year, while an Arizona plastic injection molder realized nearly $700,000 in annual energy reduction.

The U.S. Department of Commerce is similarly interested in helping manufacturers improve, albeit in different areas. Smegal pointed to the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, or MEP National Network, as a valuable counterpart to the IAC, one whose stated mission is “to strengthen and empower U.S. manufacturers and provide them with access to the resources they need to succeed.” MEP Centers across the country provide customized services to meet critical needs, ranging from process improvement and workforce development to specialized business practices, including supply chain management, cybersecurity, innovation, and business growth services.

“The Department of Commerce is an entirely separate agency but they partner with DoE, so you can think of MEP and IAC as happy playmates,” Smegal explained. “We do not step on each other’s toes, and, in fact, are often co-located and have a decades-long history of collaboration with small- and medium-sized manufacturers; we’re just helping them in complementary ways. Where the IAC assessments focus on energy consumption and waste reduction, the MEPs provide business and technical assistance with sustainability project implementation. At the end of the day, though, our shared mission is to make manufacturers more efficient and productive. That’s good for all of us, the planet included.”

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