Sustainable Manufacturing Practices Pay Off
Beyond preserving resources, green business practices can pay off in cost savings and stronger sales.
By Caroline Hayes
In manufacturing, there’s lean and then there’s green. Lean manufacturing is a set of principles designed to reduce waste in manufacturing. The aim of lean is to achieve higher throughput rates with minimum inventory. Driving out waste in the manufacturing process should result in more money being available to reduce the cost of the product or to invest in product development.
Green manufacturing takes this lean philosophy further to consider the environmental impact of the materials and processes used to manufacture products. Another factor to consider is the energy used in production and the supply chain that brings these products to the market. After all, it is no good having a green product if it takes vast amounts of energy to manufacture and transport it.
Advocates for green business practices believe the two disciplines should be followed together. Lean manufacturing addresses the inventory and stock, while green manufacturing focuses on the environmental impact of the manufacturing process. Both reduce waste, save time and materials, and — when done right — can increase profits.
Companies should also look at the complete lifecycle of the product to evaluate its true environmental impact and sustainability. One of the main areas of concern for connector manufacturers is: Will the materials presently used still be available in 10 to 15 years?
For connector manufacturers, the availability of materials is not always dictated by diminishing resources; safety legislation plays a role as well. For instance, the European Union’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and restriction of Chemicals (REACH) directive banned the use of cadmium in 2011 and restricted the use of hexavalent chromium in 2007.
Wendy Preston, technical marketing manager at Harwin, says manufacturers need to consider a number of angles to design highly effective manufacturing and logistics processes. “There are a host of different factors affecting how green design is implemented. Though the REACH and RoHS — the Restriction of the Use of Certain Hazardous Substances — directives represent the core legislative framework that must be adhered to, OEMs and component suppliers need to be mindful of numerous other aspects that go far beyond these confines.”
Preston advocates a holistic approach. “When it comes to materials, choices have previously been made based purely on performance or cost considerations. From now on, however, the whole product lifecycle needs to be taken into account — especially where the constituent materials will end up once the product is no longer in use and what their impact might be on the environment.”
“If OEMs are going to implement truly effective eco-design strategies, then they need to be able to incorporate components that are future-proofed against further material restrictions,” said Preston. “For example, take brominated flame retardants. Currently, very few of these actually feature on the list of materials that are restricted, but there is a strong likelihood that more of them will be added to it in the next five or 10 years.”
Sustainable Energy Sources
Other companies are embracing green energy production as part of their manufacturing strategy. The German group HARTING is an example of this approach, using biomethane (bio-natural gas) in place of natural gas in its four co-generation plants for carbon-neutral operations. Using biomethane obtained from wholly renewable resources, HARTING generates 4,000,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity and consumes approximately 6,000,000 kilowatt-hours — the equivalent of the annual amount of electricity consumed by 1,000 four-person households and the average natural gas consumption of 200 single-family homes.
Green manufacturing can also include switching to energy-efficient lighting and adjusting light levels as the production schedule changes. Lighting unmanned areas is wasteful, but considering the positions of luminaires will mean that less intense light can be used while effectively targeting work areas. This not only saves electricity, but can improve the wellbeing of employees, reducing eyestrain and headaches.
Sensible product packaging can save money and resources as well. We have all received a small item shipped inside of an enormous box filled with non-recyclable packaging materials. Identifying more sustainable, yet still protective, methods of packaging and transport are part of the green manufacturing process.
Not all companies can adopt renewable energy sources to power all or some of their manufacturing. Those that have, however, can significantly reduce energy bills and increase sustainability.
Smaller measures, such as promoting recycling from the clerical offices to the factory floor, also contribute to a culture of good stewardship.
Of course, everything can be a marketing opportunity and promoting a company as responsible and sustainable can have a positive impact on a company’s brand identity that ultimately translates into sales. While high street brands can promote their green credentials to make consumers think highly of them, in industry, sales are more often than not reliant on pricing. When product price reductions can be tied to lean, green business practices, a shrewd manufacturer may do well to make it known that the money savings is due to green manufacturing.
Green manufacturing also provides intangible benefits, such as increased morale, company pride, and team-building opportunities resulting from collaborative staff efforts to identify and adopt green initiatives.
As awareness grows, the value of responsible manufacturers will become more important in building relationships across the industry. For Harwin, partnering with environmentally aware suppliers is part of the company’s strategy and ultimately pays off in long-term customer satisfaction.
“We are in a position to give customers more visibility about exactly what goes into our connector products by providing detailed material declarations,” said Preston. “This means that the engineers and procurement staff at OEMs are able to make better informed decisions when specifying connectors and avoid the cost of having to do a redesign further down the line.”
For companies like Harwin and HARTING, green manufacturing can pay off in the short-term through cost savings on energy and production costs. In the long-term, however, enhancing a company’s brand identity with a reputation for responsibility and good stewardship can yield that most valuable of results: stronger customer relationships.