The manufacturing industry has a ton of abbreviated terms and buzzwords. One of the buzzwords I have been hearing a lot lately is sustainable manufacturing. Many people say that sustainable manufacturing is about using less energy and saving money when making things. That is true for the most part, but it is not quite that simple.
Let’s start with the big picture. Any time we manufacture something, we impact the environment, our society, and the economy. We impact the economy by creating jobs and wages, the location of the building, sales and profits, taxes, the infrastructure, and how we innovate. Society is impacted based on how safe we are, the people we hire, relations with the community, compliance with laws, the working conditions we supply, and the fairness with which we treat suppliers, customers, and employees. Finally, the environment is impacted by the hazardous materials we use, the emissions we cause, and the energy and other natural resources we use. As you see, sustainable manufacturing goes beyond just being green and recycling.
To truly have sustainable manufacturing, it all starts with the product design. When a product is designed, thought should be given not only to how the product is used, but also what materials go into the product and what happens to the product after it is used. There are many options for materials. Often, recycled or semi-recycled materials can be used instead or mining or creating new materials. What happens to the product after its life cycle ends? Does is go to the landfill, or can it be recycled into a post-consumer product? Once these questions have been answered and the route of least impact to the environment is chosen, the challenge is to determine how it can be manufactured.
Many manufacturing processes need energy. Selecting processes that use the least amount of energy should be considered. Can the work be done with one machine or do you need two? What solvent-free cleaners or paints can be used? Even the pallets and containers used for shipping and receiving raw materials can help reduce a manufacturer’s impact in all three areas. Reusable gaylords, recycled pallets, and steel wire baskets are just a few examples. Companies have also added renewable energy systems—solar, wind, methane from landfills, etc.—to their plants, so they don’t rely solely on fossil energy provided by the grid.
Another way to save energy is by using smart manufacturing technologies such as sensors and automatic system shutoffs, so only equipment in production uses power. Good maintenance practices like preventative and predictive maintenance and replacing filters and pumps before they become a drag on energy use will help keep equipment in top operating condition. Air compressors sometimes run even when no one is working due to leaks. Fix the leaks to use less energy.
Your heating system may kick in more when production shuts down since heat-generating equipment isn't running. To avoid unnecessarily heating an unoccupied plant, get smart thermostats that lower heat during plant idle time and get the temperature back up before production starts again. The same logic applies for A/C units. Why cool the plant to 68 degrees if no one is working over the weekend?
The building itself can also be part of a manufacturer's sustainability program. Things like green roofs and reuse of parking lot runoff can be considered. Switch to LED lighting if possible, and make sure lights are off when not needed. Install motion sensors in conference rooms, storage areas, warehouses, and restrooms, so lights turn on only when needed. Make sure copiers, PC monitors, and other office machines are turned off when not in use. Have equipment, shift, and weekend shutdown SOPs, and make sure people follow them to avoid drawing energy when not needed.
One easy way to start your journey along the route to sustainable manufacturing is embracing "lean." Basically, lean is the focus on minimizing waste in manufacturing. Some companies have achieved zero landfill status, meaning they are creating no waste within their plants.
In addition to making sure products and processes are sustainable, companies should work with their suppliers, providing focus and encouraging everyone within the supply chain to use sustainable manufacturing principles that follow fair-trade guidelines, comply with all regulations and applicable laws, and don’t violate human rights.
Many companies that have made the decision to go the sustainable route have not only benefited from consumer and customer loyalty, but have also seen increased profits. These profits are then returned to employees through more secure employment, better wages, and company growth. All this directly translates into greater benefits for communities, a more stable work environment, more disposable income, and attracting new people to the area. Manufacturing companies that practice sustainable manufacturing often demonstrate greater involvement within their communities, donating to local causes, supporting events, and investing in sponsorships. Additionally, as your company becomes more profitable, you will attract a more talented workforce and reduce turnover, adding dollars to your bottom line.
Sustainable manufacturing should be done because it’s the right things to do, not because it's the new thing to do. As manufacturers and business leaders, we have a responsibility to our environment, society, and the economic success of all. Sustainable manufacturing can help you achieve this and become an industry leader.