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Sustaining Manufacturing

The words keep morphing from one into another, but the concepts seem enduring.

Aw 2211 G Mintchell01 Web
I’m talking about “green” and “sustainable.” At Automation World, we do focus issues. Through the end of the year, you should see the 12 topics that define automation and manufacturing. By the way, anyone can see what the topics are by visiting and clicking on the editorial calendar. The monthly topic in bold print is the issue focus. In 2004, our first full year of publication, our topic in March was energy management. While the industry focus was energy efficient motors and variable frequency drives, we covered much more even back then. But, you have all gone out and switched from ordinary AC squirrel cage motors to the new NEMA Premium motors, right? Good.

Back then, using the term “green” amounted to a political manifesto. By 2007, I noticed a definite acceptance of that term in manufacturing. The green almost had the quality of a pun about it—two meanings for the same word, environmental and money. Common sense suddenly reared its head and people became aware that energy efficiency meant lower electricity costs, which meant reduced direct cost of production, which meant increased profits. As the kids say, “Duh.” Then people looked around and saw lots of other wasteful things that also happened to fit within the broad concept of green.

Gradually, the term “sustainable” has overtaken the use of “green.” You’ll often sense some interchangeability of the terms in manufacturing, but sustainable has the connotation of leading to a longer-term solution. This year, the annual ARC Advisory Group Orlando Forum, held Feb. 2–5, was called “Winning Strategies and Best Practices for Sustainable Manufacturing.” Most of the actual technologies discussed already existed. Technology supplier companies have been scrambling to review their technology/product portfolios and repackage them as sustainable solutions. That marketing effort should not be dismissed. It means first that we have the technologies to tackle problems of waste and inefficiency. It means also that manufacturers see all the values—from improved efficiency to the promotional value of being a good corporate citizen.

Core competency

I think there is another value lying in the adoption of sustainable manufacturing. You can discover it by playing on the name—sustaining manufacturing. Executive leadership in far too many companies have decided that manufacturing is no longer their core competency and have either devalued their own manufacturing or have stopped altogether by contracting it out offshore. This is a losing proposition for everyone. Manufacturing is strategic to a country’s survival. Moving manufacturing to other countries weakens our own country, but actually does not necessarily help the other country. This is especially true if companies push wages down to bare minimum levels. That means manufacturing in the new countries will not build a middle class as it did in Europe and North America.

Adopting the tools and techniques of sustainable manufacturing can give our manufacturing leadership foundation for arguing within their companies for the importance of maintaining a manufacturing base. Some parts of sustainability, such as reducing gaseous and liquid emissions, make manufacturing a better neighbor, countering the “NIMBY” (not in my back yard) argument of some communities trying to keep manufacturing out of town. Sustainable manufacturing also fits within the powerful concept of Lean Manufacturing (see "Try Out a Lean Lifestyle").

We have come a long way since the time I was driving around western Ohio with a 5.25-inch floppy disk showing pump and fan energy curves in an effort to sell variable frequency drives. Both technology suppliers and manufacturing management/engineering have discovered a view of the entirety of manufacturing—how it fits within a company and within a community. Let’s take this to the next level.
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