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Manufacturing Plants are Going Green Across the Globe

Energy savings has become a major issue for companies providing manufacturing equipment.

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Production speed and durability used to be the big concerns for T-Tek Material Handling Inc., in Montgomery, Ala. The company produces high-speed beverage palletizers. But recent spikes in the cost of energy added a new competitive factor. Now, manufacturing equipment needs to be fast, durable and energy lean. “Going green has become a competitive factor for us,” says Brian Traff, president of T-Tek. “We’re building lighter equipment and using variable speed drives and servos for energy savings.”

The company recently developed a new high-speed palletizing machine that uses less energy and performs faster. To accomplish this, T-Tek turned to Bosch Rexroth Corp., in Hoffman Estates, Ill., for its servo system. Bosch Rexroth worked with its distributor, Womack Machine Supply, in Farmers Branch, Texas, to develop a servo system that could increase speed and provide better material handling. The energy savings was an added benefit.

The result was a 20 percent-plus energy savings. “With Rexroth’s servo technology, we’ve significantly reduced the machine’s energy consumption,” says Traff. “Although our goal throughout was to improve the performance of our packaging capabilities, the energy savings that accompany this solution have been a welcome bonus for our customers.”

In the past, T-Tek based its competitive standing on building stronger, heavier equipment that was durable over the long run. “Our reputation is that we built things big and strong,” says Traff. “For us, making things lighter went contrary to making sure it would hold up for years and years.” Technological developments in materials and power now let T-Tek meet its durability goals with lighter, more energy-efficient equipment.

That lightening matters, now that T-Tek’s customers are looking for ways to cut their energy use. “In the past, our plant customers were not conscious of energy savings,” says Traff. “Now, they’re always talking about energy savings—it was never a topic just five years ago.”

A few short years ago, “going green” meant converting to environmentally friendly processes and materials. The move was part of corporate image. Green was considered an investment, not a cost savings. That all changed when oil passed $100 a barrel. Now, “going green” is about reducing energy use, and it pays for itself. Whether the plant is trimming its use of energy or switching to alternative energy sources, you can bet it’s going green. Corporate board rooms are giving green programs the green light because of the return on investment (ROI), and plant operators are turning to the control technology for energy-savings help.

Tree huggers?

Plants were making some progress on green measures before the energy cost spike. But in the last two years, those programs have accelerated with the rise in the price of traditional fuels. “The cost of energy has made going green affordable. It’s not that we’ve become tree huggers,” says Eddy Azad, president, Parsec Automation Corp., a company in Brea, Calif., that specializes in automation efficiency. “We have to go green because the vitality of our business will be in jeopardy if we don’t.”

Getting dollars from the board room for energy efficiency measures is still a struggle, but it is getting easier, now that public awareness is high and the ROI can be demonstrated. “There is some initial expense in energy savings efforts, but there’s also an ROI,” says David Crump, marketing director at Opto 22, an automation technology company in Temecula, Calif. “It’s getting easier to get funding for green measures, since green is in the press. But it helps that there are savings over the long run.”

In the past, green developments were a European issue. A few years ago, plants in North America started taking an interest. Now, the push for green plants has spread around the world. “Going green has become a global issue. It’s not isolated to North America and Europe,” says Larry O’Brien, research director of process automation at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass. “Everybody is interested in it. Going green is all the talk in the world of automation suppliers.”

Get a meter

The low-hanging fruit of greening the plant is energy use reduction. For decades, plants have been cavalier about their energy use. Oil was less than $20 a barrel, so energy efficiency was a low priority. Since most plants are woefully inefficient in energy use, there are plenty of ways to trim. “Opportunities for energy savings abound all over the place,” says Alison Smith, research director, AMR Research Inc., in Boston. “If you’re not metering your energy, you can go to your control vendor and buy a meter to put on the wire. It’s a pittance.”

Saving on energy doesn’t necessarily mean a major upgrade to the control system. A lot of energy savings can be identified by adding relatively simple monitors to the automation system. “Automation certainly helps with energy efficiency. We put in simple systems that monitor the energy use,” says Terry Gebert, vice president of manufacturing and process solutions at Rockwell Automation Inc., the Milwaukee-based automation vendor. “The system has additional sensors and software for the monitoring.”

Another low-cost, low-technology way to save energy is to optimize the actual running of plant equipment. “During the course of the day, how much of your machine time is active production?” asks Parsec’s Azad. “We had four hours of production, but we ran another two hours before we shut down. It’s amazing how much you can save by coordinating production with run time.”

Many plants are cutting their energy costs and reducing their carbon footprint by switching to renewable sources of energy. “In the short term, you fix what you have, but in the long term, you look at alternative fuel sources,” says Rockwell’s Gebert. “There’s a huge push for alternative energy sources, and a lot of alternative systems are going into plants. We’re seeing biofuels, solar power and wind power being used.”

Look, we’re green

For control system suppliers, one of the big reasons for providing green tools and technology is that it makes them more competitive. In some cases, plants are going green because of customer demand. “Wal-Mart and comparable stores are requiring suppliers to sign statements about lowering their carbon footprint by certain amounts,” says T-Tek’s Traff. “By lowering energy costs, you give your public image a boost, but you also get cost benefits.”

Many companies are showing the world they’ve become environmentally conscious as a way to buy good will. “Green is becoming a marketing tool, a marketing ploy,” says Arun Sinha, director of business development at Opto 22. “As we become greener, we put it out there for the public to know. And they feel more comfortable doing business with a company that is making an effort on the environment.”

Plants are going green all over the globe. Plant operators are reducing energy use and switching to alternative energy sources. The greening of the plant is certainly a boost to corporate image, but the real driver is improved efficiencies and reduced costs. Many of the efficiencies are coming from control technology. Plant operators are proving the ROI of green in the same manner they would argue for new technology to improve uptime. The boardroom is getting behind the effort because green pays in cost savings.

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