Does Sustainability Matter to Manufacturing?

Dec. 6, 2012
The terms “green” and “sustainable” were nearly inescapable less than a decade ago. Today, these terms are heard much less frequently. Is the concept of sustainable manufacturing becoming passé, or is it simply becoming a core part of manufacturing’s DNA?

We’ve all heard the jokes about how wrong the global warming prognosticators must be when a severe cold snap settles in, or that evidence of rapidly melting ice caps are the result of recent spikes in solar activity. Regardless of the sentiment behind such statements, they tend to engender a feeling that we really don’t need to be all that concerned with industrial emissions or how much energy we use.

Despite this all-too-common mindset, some serious inroads are being made to make manufacturing a far more energy efficient industry—not necessarily in an attempt to be more “green,” but because it makes good business sense by delivering more dollars to the bottom line. In addition, the push for sustainability across the economy is even driving new business development in the manufacturing industries.

In this article, we’ll look at a sampling of key technology developments, manufacturer initiatives, and new businesses that appear to suggest that the concept of sustainability is quickly becoming a part of manufacturing’s DNA.

The Costs of standing still
Considering that the industrial sector is the largest consumer of energy, the sustainability focus in manufacturing has predominantly been on addressing its use of energy. As a result, a plethora of products and services have been developed to address this issue.

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One interesting approach to the energy efficiency concept for manufacturers that has been rolled out in the last few years is ProfiEnergy, where the industrial Ethernet communication network is used to manage the power consumption of automated equipment. (ProfiEnergy is a “profile” or targeted configuration of the ProfiNet industrial Ethernet communications protocol).

To help highlight the impact that equipment energy monitoring via an industrial communications network can have, a recent study involving ProfiEnergy was conducted at the Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles facility in Hanover, Germany. The study involved examining the behavior of the plant and its components with respect to load curve, load distribution, and the types of idle time encountered. The influence of operating modes on energy consumption was also analyzed.

The study revealed that a significant portion of energy is being used at the facility even when production is at a standstill. Power measurements taken at each workcell, in addition to programmable logic controller (PLC) data on equipment status and operating modes, showed that load curves in the analyzed production cells exhibited regularly recurring load profiles that are the direct result of discrete production steps. The analysis showed that the maximum load level during operation is around 80kW, with the base load (i.e., standstill) at around 17kW.

>> Click here to read about two products that have helped manufacturers achieve specific sustainability goals. 

Though the standstill energy use may not seem like much (around 20 percent of peak), the report claims that the high peak load figures conceal the fact that the actual consumption value (that is, the energy that is actually paid for) is the mean value of the load profile, which is around 32 kW. This means that the base load during non-productive periods can be at least 50 percent of the total energy consumed.

Based on the results of the study (which also looked at the use of energy by robots in the plant), a typical automotive production plant engaged in body construction and assembly will consume about half (47 percent) of its total energy during idle periods, meaning that only 53 percent of the energy consumed is productive.

Having this kind of information means production facilities can save significant amounts of money through better control of energy use during standstill.

Consumption tracking
With its products and components manufactured in multiple sub-factories, a large Asia-based heavy industries corporation, whose portfolio of products includes castings and forgings, nuclear and thermal power plants, water desalination plants, and material handling systems, recently decided to track its energy consumption data. Though the corporation would not allow its name to be published in this story, it is permitting the details of its energy-tracking project to be released.

In the corporation’s initial attempt to track its energy consumption, energy data was collected manually from electrical, gas, and water meters at each sub-factory. The problem was that the data was not continuously recorded and was not available in real time. In addition, the collected data had to be logged manually into the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system for analysis. Using this information, energy costs assigned to each sub-factory were calculated by dividing total energy cost by the number of sub-factories.

To improve its energy consumption tracking, the company installed a data acquisition (DAQ) system for each sub-factory to obtain real-time electricity, gas, and water consumption data that would capture the data electronically and make it available to the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system for analysis. Opto 22’s Snap PAC is serving as the control platform for this DAQ system and Opto 22 Snap I/O modules are used to collect signal data in real time from gas, water, and electrical meters, as well as generators and other devices located throughout each sub-factory.

By using real-time energy data to identify potential areas of savings, the company reduced its overall energy cost by 5 percent, according to Opto 22 (Temecula, Calif.). The corporation’s cost of maintaining stand-by energy also dropped by 3 percent.

Energy efficiency efforts are not the only sustainability-related issues impacting manufacturing. Interest in sustainable products is helping to expand the manufacturing industry itself.

Consider Springboard Biodiesel (Chico, Calif.), the manufacturers of BioPro biodiesel processors that convert most any non-petroleum natural oil (such as tallow, animal fats and vegetable oil) into ASTM-grade biodiesel that can be used in any diesel engine. BioPro automates the conversion process, enabling users to make their fuel without turning valves, metering in chemicals or carefully monitoring the machine.  The mixing and resting stages are handled by the BioPro automatically. There’s no need to transfer fluids from container to container. When processing is completed, users connect a hose to the included fuel pump to fuel their vehicles.

PLCs from AutomationDirect (Cumming, Ga.) are used to control the various functions of the BioPro, ranging from mixing duration to when and how pumping and draining occur.

Engineers at Springboard Biodiesel have written several programs for the PLC that allow optional procedures to be automatically executed according to field conditions. For instance, the PLC is preprogrammed to accept and accommodate additional equipment that works with the BioPro processor systems, such as the Incosep, which reportedly enables users to more than double their biodiesel processing speed.

The benefits of biodiesel—such as: burning 88 to 90 percent cleaner than regular diesel if made from waste cooking oil; burning 78 percent cleaner than regular diesel when made from virgin soybean oil (according to the EPA); manufacturability from most any vegetable or animal oil; usability in virtually all diesel engines without any conversion equipment or modifications; and ability to mix with hydrocarbon-based diesel in any ratio—is leading numerous operations to use this new fuel source. For example:

The Florida National Guard produces biodiesel from used vegetable oil to fuel state maintenance vehicles at the Camp Blanding Joint Training Center in Starke, Fla. The Guard has been able to convert its waste cooking oil to biodiesel for a total cost of 67 cents per gallon, when all savings from waste disposal are taken into account.

Daphne Utilities in Alabama used the BioPro to create its award-winning cooking grease recycling program. In this program, the public drops off used cooking oil at stations throughout the city, and the utility processes the oil into fuel. From a $12,000 start-up cost, Daphne Utilities now saves approximately $10,000 a year by creating biodiesel from used oil for about a dollar a gallon, not including the savings from a 40 percent reduction in spills and avoided waste oil disposal costs.

>> The Carbon Equation: Click here for a look at one of the biggest debates surrounding the concept of sustainability—carbon accounting.

Another new industry entrant created out of increased interest in sustainability is New Sky Energy (Boulder, Colo.). Founded in 2007, New Sky Energy targets the oil and gas, glass manufacturing, plastics manufacturing, battery recycling, and mining industries with its process that captures CO2 and converts it into products such as baking soda and soda ash, in addition to several top commodity chemicals such as hydrochloric and sulfuric acids as well as hydrogen and oxygen.

Clarifying how New Sky Energy’s products are of used in manufacturing, Deane Little, CEO of New Sky Energy, says glass companies are interested in New Sky Energy for two reasons. “They’re interested in reducing CO2 emissions—and they produce a lot of CO2. They also use soda ash, which is one of New Sky’s clean chemical outputs. In fact, soda ash (sodium carbonate) is the most expensive material component in glass manufacturing. Soda ash is added to silica sand to get it to melt at much lower temperatures. New Sky works with glass companies to capture their CO2 with our sodium hydroxide capture agent and convert it into soda ash onsite.”

For additional information:

Biodiesel information:
Siemens Energy Savings Estimator:
Epicor’s Carbon Accounting:
New Sky Energy:
Springboard Biodiesel: