Adopting environmentally friendly practices in your precast operations.
By Bridget McCrea
The days when manufacturers could dispose of waste indiscriminately, leave the lights on all night long and let the trucks run for hours while sitting out in the yard are long gone. Driven by budgeting constraints, high energy costs and increased governmental regulations, all manufacturing plants are looking at ways to operate in a more sustainable manner.
Add the green business movement to the mix, and you get a formula for environmental consciousness that no precaster can afford to ignore. “Pretty much everyone is trying to figure out how to operate in a more green manner, namely because the marketplace is demanding it,” says Dale Rogers, director of the Center for Logistics Management and a professor of supply chain management at the University of Nevada.
Rogers says that while much of the focus is on developing environmentally friendly or green practices within individual companies, the bigger target should be long-term sustainability that also includes suppliers and customers. “At the end of the day, manufacturers should be looking to their supply chains as a source of sustainability and operational continuity,” says Rogers, “with green being just one part of that overall picture.”
Ask Cathy Rodgers why companies would spend the money and time going green in an economy where orders are down and margins are thinner than ever, and her answer is simple and to the point: “It’s a competitive necessity,” says Rodgers, vice president of global opportunities for IBM and chair for the Institute for Supply Chain Management’s committee on
sustainability and social responsibility.
Rodgers credits the emergence of the ethical consumer and the growing interest in green initiatives, carbon footprints and sustainability with driving that competitive necessity. Also directing the need is the perception that green is no longer “leading edge” or “pioneering,” and is expected by many to be a normal part of a company’s operations.
“People realize that sustainability and socially responsible initiatives are good for business,” says Rodgers. “Firms that want to stay on top of their games need a cohesive and comprehensive sourcing strategy that addresses environmental issues and the challenges they’re facing in this realm.”
An eye on the bottom line
The good news is that being environmentally conscious doesn’t have to break the bank. In fact, precast manufacturers looking to implement the most effective green strategies need to remember: “If the green initiatives aren’t profitable, they won’t be sustainable,” says Rogers, who cautions companies against using green policies and procedures for the sake of
“Don’t just implement or try something out that makes no sense, and that won’t pay for itself in the long run,” says Rogers. “Before testing anything out, ask yourself what your (business partners and customers) are doing to go green, and what new initiatives might fit under the green banner while also reducing your costs or your customers’ costs. Ultimately, you want to look at areas where both energy and materials can be eliminated from your operations.”
You’ve got the power
Improved energy efficiency is one area where the typical precaster could use a tuneup, says B.J. Lackland, director and CFO at Las Vegas-based Power Efficiency Corp., which makes an electric motor control device designed to save energy. Look around your plant, notes Lackland, and consider all of the various pieces of machinery that have individual motor controls. All of them – particularly larger, older equipment – represent the opportunity to operate greener and more efficiently.
“A lot of those motors are running at half-power all the time, which is inefficient,” says Lackland, who has helped cement manufacturers get better usage and efficiencies from their bucket elevators and conveyor systems. “If a conveyor is lightly loaded, or if it’s carrying a variable load, it’s a good candidate for better energy savings.”
One way to figure out whether your plant is harboring any of these energy hogs is to talk with the people who are using them, rather than trying to test their load capacities individually. “They’ll know which machines are running heavy loads, and which ones aren’t,” says Lackland. With the worst offenders identified, “stick a meter on the machine and record its usage over a week or two to find out how much energy it’s using.”
Motors that don’t meet expectations in terms of energy usage should either be replaced (with premium efficiency motors, for example) or equipped with motor controls. “If you can go through your plant and make your motors more efficient, you will reduce your electricity use,” says Lackland, who adds that 95 percent of the cost of a motor is the energy that goes through it, and not the motor itself (source: U.S. Department of Energy). “If you get a premium efficiency motor, it can make a huge difference over time.”
Other energy-efficient moves that precasters can make include trading out fluorescent lighting (see the sidebar “Six Ways to Be a Little Greener”), installing timers within the plant and offices to control light usage, and instilling a corporate culture that considers green issues like recycling and water conservation. “Learn to look at energy efficiency as any other way to make or save money,” says Lackland, “and incorporate it into your overall business strategy.”
Rolling down the highway
Fleet management is another area where precasters can go green while saving some money in the process. Chris Ransom, director of product management for Networkfleet in San Diego, works often with manufacturers who want to “tune up” their trucks and vehicles by tracking simple functions such as idle time, vehicle speed and driver shifting patterns. He cites an idling tractor trailer being loaded with precast concrete pieces as a prime starting point for companies on a quest to be more environmentally conscious.
“If you can reduce that idle time and get your drivers to change their shifting patterns in a way that conserves fuel, you can see some significant improvements pretty quickly,” says Ransom. Routing and scheduling also come into play, particularly in these times of high fuel costs and slim product margins. And remember that when you reduce fuel usage, he says, you also chip away at your fleet’s carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane gas emissions.
To get there, Ransom says precasters should start monitoring idle time, fuel usage and other measures on five vehicles. See how fast they’re being driven, he says, and check out driving patterns (a GPS-based fleet management system can assist). Then apply that information across your entire fleet, and use it to develop new policies and standards for your vehicles and their drivers.
The benefits should come quickly, according to Ransom, who points to lower fuel usage, reduction in wage expenses (assuming you’ll need fewer drivers to handle the better-mapped-out routes), less paperwork and improved fleet utilization as just a few of the returns. Longer-term rewards include lower insurance rates and reduced maintenance costs.
On the green side of things, getting a fleet into shape also goes a long way in reducing a precaster’s primary carbon footprint (a measure of direct emissions of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels, including domestic energy consumption and transportation such as a truck or car). “At the same time that you’re seeing business value,” says Ransom, “you’re also reducing your firm’s negative impact on the environment.”
Going even greener
Expect more managers and owners to don their green hats in the year ahead as end user demand for sustainable, eco-friendly business practices and products continues to expand. Also expect to see green standards developed in the near future, says Rodgers, who predicts an upswing in the regulatory requirements surrounding sustainability.
“Consumers have access to, and a desire for, information about sustainability – information that influences their buying decisions,” says Rodgers. “The sooner companies recognize this and provide that data in a relevant, transparent way, the better off they will be.”
Stephen Stokes, vice president of sustainability and green technology for Boston-based AMR Research, says manufacturers that want to stay in business should put green initiatives at the top of their “to do” lists. “It’s indisputable that we’re going through a substantial economic transformation that encompasses issues like energy consumption and optimization,” says Stokes, who sees compliance (with government regulations, for example), environmental regulation and increased operational efficiencies as the three areas of sustainability that companies should be looking at right now.
Soon enough, says Stokes, “everyone will be doing it.” Much as the organic label was once a great differentiator for a select few food producers, green will eventually become mainstreamed into every aspect of society.
“It’s going to become harder and harder to differentiate oneself solely on sustainability efforts in a world where the entire marketplace is going green and concerned about the environment,” says Stokes. “The good news is that the companies using the sustainability mantra as a basis for operational efficiency, and to reach their compliance goals, will also achieve cost savings while doing their part to help create a more sustainable future for everyone.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s gold Award for best trade/technical feature statewide.