Doing more with less: An engineer's guide to sustainable manufacturing

To meet rising human expectations without inflicting irreparable damage on the environment or consuming an undue share of the resources that will be needed by future generations, many manufacturers are re-examining the way they conduct their operations to find ways to make them more sustainable. The goal is to do more with less: in less time, using less energy, water and raw materials, and with less waste and emissions.


Ever since man first harnessed the power of electricity to do work, the objective has been the same – to accomplish more with less human effort, with less waste and in less time. Never has that objective been more important than today.

We live in a world of 6 billion people and counting, all striving for a better life. In the process, we’re consuming more and more of the world’s resources. The by-products from our activities are causing serious damage to the quality of our air, water and land. Inefficient use of resources like energy and raw materials just compounds the damage.

To meet rising human expectations without inflicting irreparable damage on the environment or consuming an undue share of the resources that will be needed by future generations, many manufacturers are re-examining the way they conduct their operations to find ways to make them more sustainable. The goal is to do more with less: in less time, using less energy, water and raw materials, and with less waste and emissions.

As makers of products and equipment, manufacturers are the first links in a chain of resource consumption that ultimately involves every individual on the planet. While our products have significantly improved the quality of life for billions of people, we now share responsibility for making the changes needed to help achieve a healthier planet.

Schneider Electric, for example, is one of 32 major manufacturers that recently signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Save Energy Now initiative, each pledging to reduce energy consumption by 25% over the next decade.

As one of the world’s leading manufacturers of electrical and automation solutions, we are committed to sharing what we learn from that effort, not only with other companies who have pledged to take action but with our customers through the products and services that we provide.


What is sustainable manufacturing?

While energy efficiency and environmental responsibility are core components of sustainability, the concept has been broadened to include achieving operating efficiency and eliminating waste in every aspect of a company’s operations. This makes the business case for sustainable manufacturing just as compelling as its environmental message. More and more companies are recognizing that sustainable practices are as good for their business as they are for the planet.

A 2009 study by the Aberdeen Group, “Sustainable Production: Good for the Plant, Good for the Planet,” found that best-in-class companies approached sustainable manufacturing as a systematic way to achieve four key goals:


·                     Gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace,

·                     Ensure compliance with current and future regulations,

·                     Respond to customer demands for more eco-friendly products, and

·                     Improve their bottom line financials.

Working against a benchmark of current operating performance, including energy usage that enabled them to establish goals, these best-in-class companies took steps to improve performance and measure progress. Although these efforts are in their early days, the companies surveyed had already begun to see a significant return to the bottom line from their sustainability investment.

According to the study, best-in-class companies were able to directly impact the cost of manufacturing operations by reducing energy consumption (24%) and emissions (30%) and improving overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) by 89%. 

These companies reduced sustainability-related costs by an average of 8%, the researchers reported, while increasing customer retention by an average of 16%. If you could achieve similar results, imagine the impact that would have on the health of your business.


Engineering for sustainability


While senior management must champion the commitment to sustainable manufacturing, it is the shop floor and the company’s engineering staff who must make it work. And that means working in close partnership with the design engineers at your machine builders to upgrade existing equipment or redesign new machines for maximum operating and energy efficiency.

Most of us are familiar with the 3 Rs long associated with sustainability: reduce, reuse and recycle. By reducing energy consumption, waste and emissions, companies can lower their operating costs because they will use less energy and raw materials and pay less for waste disposal. Workplace safety also has a role here, since worker injuries invariably take a toll not only in human terms but also on the cost of doing business.

But achieving sustainability in manufacturing requires three additional steps: control, connect and compare. These 3 Cs, if you will, provide engineering guidance for creating the more efficient production systems that are needed to achieve your company’s sustainability goals.

The Aberdeen study found that best-in-class performers had implemented three core strategies to improve sustainability:


·                     Provide real-time visibility into operations

·                     Optimize processes

·                     Implement performance standards


As more and more formerly manual processes are automated and networked, engineers are gaining access to the critical operating information they need to implement sustainability strategies. Data from networked systems enable performance to be monitored in real time, benchmarks to be established, trends and problem areas to be identified for further corrective steps, progress to be measured against established goals and return on investment verified.


Identify the inefficiencies


Adopting modern engineering standards when new machines are purchased or production lines are upgraded will ensure significant performance improvements.

While much of the effort to improve manufacturing processes over the past two decades has been focused on better control and communication methods, little has been done to modernize the often inefficient mechanical components that do the actual work of manufacturing.  Until engineers look at a system’s operation holistically, the true potential for improving OEE or energy efficiency will never be achieved.

Motors are the largest energy consumers for manufacturers. At first glance, it might seem that substituting energy efficient motors would solve the problem. But in reality their potential for energy savings is only 10% even under optimal operating conditions. Of the total potential energy savings, another 30% can be achieved by using electronic speed controls such as variable speed drives. Even more significant is the additional 60% in savings that can be achieved by upgrading mechanical systems.

It’s important to remember that a machine’s power transmission system can only be as energy efficient as its least efficient component. Adding variable speed drives to more precisely control motor speeds and switching to direct drives and gearmotors to replace inefficient mechanical components, such as worm gears, chains and belts, can raise total system energy efficiency from less than 60% to more than 95%, even without using an energy efficient motor.

By streamlining the power train to use more energy-efficient components, you reduce both energy and maintenance costs. Taking advantage of regenerative energy schemes in multi-axis motion adds even more to the energy savings potential.

Innovative engineering solutions like these and hundreds of other ideas are available from engineering and automation societies, engineers at other companies and suppliers of automation components and systems, as well as trade magazines and web sites.


What’s in it for your business?


It’s become clear that “good enough” engineering is no longer good enough. Not only is there no economic advantage to be gained from inefficient machine designs,  but your business pays a penalty for them every day in lost production time, wasted materials and labor, and lost opportunity costs.

By modernizing our approach to engineering solutions for manufacturing, we can reduce our cost of doing business, create new opportunities for growth and protect the planet. The tools are available. The path has been charted. Now it’s up to engineers to help their companies take the first steps toward sustainability.

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