Green Manufacturing About Dollars and Sense

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by Michael Ouellette

When it comes to greening your job shop, thinking small can pay big dividends


Sustainability is a word we hear bandied about constantly nowadays. For those inclined to be sustainable, it’s a lifestyle. For companies looking to ride the green wave, it’s a selling feature. For scientists, it’s a truth, and for politicians it’s a demographic or an inconvenience. 

For manufacturers, it is all of these things and more. For many years, manufacturers have heard calls for industry to implement so-called “green manufacturing” practices to improve its environmental impact and climate footprint—and many have made numerous process and supply changes to accomplish this. The biggest companies routinely budget large sums of money and time for these initiatives. But for small and medium-sized, privately owned shops, it’s difficult to assess what’s possible, the timeline in which it can be implemented and how to pay for any of it.

There’s not a whole lot of places to turn to for help, either, leaving many manufacturers in the dark over what they can easily accomplish, and which green manufacturing trends deliver the most bang for the buck.

View from the top
Globally, there is a lot of talk about greening the manufacturing supply chain, with many organizations publishing opinion pieces and white papers calling for widespread action in the manufacturing sector. One such organization is the World Economic Forum (WEF), which bills itself as the connective tissue between political, business, cultural and other leaders of society in an effort to shape global, regional and industry agendas.

The WEF absolutely wants you to go green and has a lot of ideas that will help get a company there. In its latest whitepaper, the Geneva-based organization offers four simple solutions to help make the manufacturing industry more sustainable. 

The report, which was a part of the WEF annual meeting, begins with a few simple statements:

  • Industry must work to mitigate its impact on stakeholders and the environment
  • New technologies like 3D printing can make the manufacturing industry more sustainable

These sound great, and are certainly statements most reasonable people will accept. It’s when you get into the details of the proclamation that the organization’s lack of “boots on the ground” in the real manufacturing economy becomes all too clear. Here are the four solutions offered by the WEF, followed by brief descriptions:

  • Tooling-free manufacturing, without scrap
    Use additive technologies instead of the current subtractive technologies to reduce waste and improve supply chain efficiencies. 
  • Consolidating assembly
    Using design engineering along with the capabilities of additive to rethink how we build , making multipurpose or combined parts instead of subassemblies that must be combined by the end user.
  • Generative design
    The claim here is that AI can engineer fully optimized parts as much as 50 per cent lighter than conventional designs, without sacrificing performance.
  • Circular manufacturing and new polymers
    This is a theory in which products are designed to fit into sustainable loops and are made with recyclable metals where components can be reused again and again. Polymers come into play here as well. 

This all sounds incredible, and no one would blame you for thinking this is a great initiative. However, considering the current economic climate, there are not many job shops in Canada ready to invest millions in the newest 3D additive technology, the specialty material required to make products with it, or the AI-driven design interfaces needed to design the next generation of “combined” parts. 

Closer to home
With large-scale capital investment off the table, are Canada’s manufacturing and fabricating firms left to wallow in the dirty industrial depths? Not entirely. 

U.S. military products manufacturer Raytheon in March was awarded with the first TRUE Platinum Zero Waste certification in the state of Texas. The designation, a product of Green Business Certification Inc. (the same group that brought us the LEED building certification), identifies companies that commit to innovations in resource management and waste reduction. 

Raytheon, with 2019 sales of $29 billion and 70,000 employees, is a massive global industrial giant and vastly different from any 50-employee weld shop. But a quick look at how the defence contractor earned the designation gives any small manufacturer a solid launch pad to improve their company’s sustainability.

The site in McKinney, Texas started by reusing packaging and office furniture, leading to what it claims is a 91 per cent reduction in the amount of solid waste sent to local landfills. All of the site’s construction debris, old IT equipment, paper and scrap metal are recycled. The company also partners with local vendors to compost food waste from its employee cafeteria, which is then sold to Raytheon’s landscaping contractor to maintain flower beds and pots on the McKinney campus. Used gloves are recycled and turned into raw materials to create products like outdoor furniture and bulk plastics. While some of these initiatives don’t quite fit the job shop model, they are all good starting points for a company looking to reduce waste without taking on massive new investments or onerous process changes that will impact productivity. 

Right next door
Sometimes, a bunch of small initiatives can have a major impact for a company looking to improve its environmental impact and save money in the process.

“We wouldn’t be in business if it wasn’t for the sustainability work that we’ve done,” says Paul Rak, president and owner of VeriForm Inc., a metal fabrication shop in Cambridge, Ont. Rak is focused on mitigating his carbon footprint, and has been since 2006 when he decided he wanted to do what he could to make the world a better place for his daughter to live. 

Don’t mistake that sentiment for musings of some hippy-dippy social justice warrior either. Rak is a businessman, through and through. And each of the 100 energy reduction projects he has initiated at his company had to first pass through a rigorous business case assessment before being approved. 

“We didn’t start doing it for financial savings, we did it for the emissions savings, but quickly realized it was actually saving us a ton of money,” says Rak, who added that VeriForm, with a combination of mitigation projects and purchased carbon offsets, has been carbon neutral for the last four years, and emissions have gone down from 262 tonnes to 60 tonnes.

One of the biggest roadblocks for many companies interested in reducing its emissions and their associated costs is where to start. How do you select projects to address emissions without negatively impacting other areas of your operations? For Rak, this was the easiest part. He started by installing about a dozen wireless monitors around his shop and on certain pieces of equipment. He began to monitor the office, the press brakes, compressors, dust collectors, lights and the HVAC throughout the day. Once he got an idea of each area’s energy use, he knew where the low-hanging fruit was to be found—and eliminated. 

He quickly decided his four-door shipping bay was the worst offender. Because of the layout of the shop floor near those doors, they couldn’t be closed when working on very large fabrication projects—think rail cars—and the heat would just pour out these massive openings. Rak installed limit switches on the doors, so every time they were opened the heat would shut off. 

“The next month, the heat bill went from $6,000 to $570, even though the weather was colder. The actual reduction in heating costs was 97 per cent,” Rak says. 

At VeriForm, business has improved over the last 13 years. Rak says the company has saved more than $2.5 million utility, maintenance and employee turnover costs directly stemming from its sustainability projects and initiatives. And not all of VeriForm’s 100 initiatives are actually cost saving projects, some are policies. The company grants employees $4,000 to buy a purely electric car while offering free charging on site. Employees receive $2000 towards a hybrid vehicle.

And now, 13 years after first considering VeriForm’s carbon footprint, it’s about managing ongoing projects rather than implementing a raft of new ones, and Rak is keen for others to take inspiration from what he’s accomplished.“This work can be duplicated in any industrial, commercial or institutional environment. It’s not just about big motors and machines, it’s about simple things like installing extra insulation or changing over lights and monitors to LEDs,” he says. 

Just like any major project, the hardest part of a sustainability initiative is knowing where to start. But unlike the projects touted by the WEF or multinational manufacturing consortiums, the positive impact—both environmentally and on the bottom line—can be realized very quickly. SMT

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