Green Identity

An Important First Step Toward Sustainable Manufacturing Is Better Machine Efficiency and Conservation

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April 2010By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

The customer is always right—and these days that can mean going green. Consumers, retailers and pretty much everyone else is waking up to the value of saving energy and reducing waste. As a result, many demand that utilities and manufacturers run greener and provide tools enabling them to be more ecologically responsible themselves. In turn, manufacturers require machines and equipment that consume fewer resources and produce more sustainable products. So, some machine builders are redesigning to run greener and handle greener materials.

However, the reality of a sustainable manufacturing environment—an environment based on renewable sources of energy and raw materials—is a long way off for many industries. Basically, like so much else, the concept of sustainability rolls downhill. So, going green is a first step for manufacturers and machine builders. It is also a way to make some green.

For example, jet fuel is very expensive, and so airlines try to conserve it by flying planes with lighter airframes. This is why airplane manufacturers and their parts suppliers use more carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic parts. However, machining carbon-fiber can produce potentially unhealthy particles, and so machine tool builder Mori Seiki USA's ( Machining Technology Lab (MTL) recently developed and implemented its Zerochip high-pressure vacuum process for many of its machining centers. The system uses hollow machine spindles through which a specialized vacuum sucks the dust-like chips from machining carbon-fiber, graphite and composite materials into a sealed container. This allows users to safely machine the lighter, energy-saving parts they need for green airplanes, as well as racing cars, bicycles and other future products.

"Many of our customers are concerned about their carbon footprint, and all of them are concerned about the cost of energy," says Greg Hyatt, Mori Seiki's engineering  vice president. "So they ask us to make our machines more energy efficient, but the more interesting challenge is when they have innovations in their own products that require us to provide new machining solutions to enable their new technology."

Combining Tasks

While making machines simpler is one way to go green, other builders are joining together several devices to save energy and materials. For example, Hyatt reports that Mori Seiki MTL's newly released grind-hardening process brings together formerly separate rough machining, heat treating and finish machining processes into one center, such as its NT4250DCG mill/turning machine that makes heavy machine parts. Besides combining machining functions, grind hardening uses heat from rough machining to selectively heat-treat machined parts in the same unit. This allows users to avoid sending parts out to an off-site furnace for heat-treating. Hyatt reports this process is 85-95% less costly than traditional machining and heat-treating methods.

More Than Efficiency

Is this just good old efficiency dressed up in green clothing? No and yes. While traditional efficiency affects a builder and its end users, green manufacturing influences a wider circle of disciplines and requirements—eventually touching everyone. In short, green manufacturing appears to embrace more technical areas and a larger jurisdiction than efficiency.

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