For leading manufacturing companies, sustainability is more than just the latest green buzzword. While not necessarily connoting new business practices, the concept of sustainable production does provide a framework for prioritizing business investments as well as for communicating green corporate accomplishments to an increasingly environmentally conscious public.
“It’s a bit surprising that sustainability is being treated as something new,” said Coca-Cola’s Mark Lee, director of commercial product supply engineering. “It’s really just good business practice.”
Indeed, for Lee and several other manufacturing professionals who participated in a panel discussion on sustainable production at the Manufacturing Perspectives media event held in conjunction with Rockwell Automation’s Automation Fair event this past November, sustainability in many ways represents a rebadging of the manufacturing professional’s stock-in-trade: a continuous-improvement process aimed at increasing efficiency, reducing waste, easing environmental impact and boosting workplace safety.
Lean and Green
“Sustainability is part of the relentless pursuit of waste elimination,” said Lee. “It’s part of being a world-class manufacturing organization.”
While much of the work might remain the same, society’s recent emphasis on all things green has manufacturing companies beginning to turn their attention outward. “Now we’re getting more outwardly focused,” added Lee, “helping our suppliers and partners become more sustainable.”
Joel Makower of Greener World Media, who addressed sustainability topics at Rockwell Automation’s Process Solutions User Group (PSUG), says manufacturing companies long have been reluctant to share what in many cases is dramatic progress on sustainability issues.
“Green marketing is only the tip of the iceberg relative to corporate activity,” said Makower. “Companies find that when they point out what they’ve done right, they often illuminate how far they have to go.”
But today, that’s changing. “It’s no longer good enough to have your safety record on the wall on the plant floor—now it’s on your website,” added Lee. “The work is the same, but the focus has shifted.”
At General Mills, they’re tackling the sustainability question by tallying each of the company’s many consumer products’ environmental footprints in terms of water consumption, waste, energy use and greenhouse-gas contribution.
“What’s shifted recently is that we now treat aspects of sustainability as ingredients in all our products, in every formula we make,” explained General Mills’ Jim Schulz, controls and information systems director. The potential to improve any of these metrics is measured on pure economic merits—lower energy or waste-disposal costs, for example. “The business benefit is the fuel that drives the engine,” said Schulz.
At Boeing, energy efficiency is a primary sustainability priority, said James Fonda, advanced technologist for networked systems technology. “Our Network-Enabled Manufacturing initiative is all about visibility. We want to be able to see where we can make a big difference,” said Fonda. “It’s not just sustainability, it’s also survivability.”