Plant & Works Engineering
Implementing a sustainability strategy
Published:  06 May, 2015

Implementing and maintaining an environmental strategy is all-too-often seen as less business-critical than other areas such as product development, innovation or machinery maintenance. Phil Burge, country communication manager at SKF, makes the case for supporting a sustainability agenda and explains how it can boost profits and performance.

All aspects of the manufacturing process, when unregulated, can be at odds with the environment. This is the case whether it is the raw materials being used, the energy depleted during production, or the method by which products are disposed of when no longer useful. While complete efficiency and net positive impact on operations may be tricky to achieve with existing technology and global economic conditions, for manufacturers this should never be off table as a primary objective going forward.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies are nothing new. Regrettably though, the worldwide economic crisis that reached its heights of financial instability in 2008-09, led to organisations of all sizes and interests having to delay or retract environmental initiatives.

While sustainability was put on the backburner for a number of businesses, a great many continued to follow environmental strategy as keenly as ever, having the foresight to realise the prospective economic advantages that such policies could deliver.

Now, as the scars of the global meltdown are healing, an increasing number of business leaders are endorsing and pursuing a robust, coherent CSR policy. More than something that CEO’s or HR simply pay lip service to, the post-recession tendency is to implement a strategy that is deeply entrenched into the culture of an organisation. Going further than a moral ethos, a CSR strategy needs to deliver real and measurable value for a business, its stakeholders, employees and customers.

For those businesses where sustainability has remained a key business tenet, regardless of the bigger financial picture, sustainability continues to be a measurable element and key driver for almost every other part of the business. Today, at many businesses, it is a key driver for innovation, encompassing everything from factory and office construction, to production processes, output of energy and water, plus the design and delivery of products and services.

A sound sustainability strategy not only needs to quantifiably reduce the environmental impact of the business, but its influence should also spread further to both customers and suppliers. For example, the SKF BeyondZero initiative has been running since 2006 and has two central strands; to reduce its own negative environmental influence and that of suppliers, and to offer customers the innovations, technologies, products and services that empower them to minimise their own energy output and waste levels.

Understanding, reacting to and improving the process of environmental life cycle management does not happen overnight. Real change, potential for profit and long-term benefits are the outcome of years of research and development, which can enable a business to develop a more holistic comprehension of the environmental performance of its products, solutions and activities.

This attainment of environmental knowledge covers an array of stages across the value chain; from the raw materials selected, how these are utilised and processed, the energy used by products within customers’ applications and how these are either disposed of or recycled when they reach end of life. With such a continuous process of review, it is easy to identify how environmental impacts can be decreased at all phases of the value chain. For the types of products and solutions that companies such as SKF provide, industry research has recognised that the greatest potential for lessening these impacts is found in the use phase; put simply, the way in which its products and solutions perform in each customer’s application.

The true measure of efficiency and energy output

There are a number of recommended measures for increasing efficiency. A key one would be that any new factories and logistics centres, wherever they are located, achieves a BREEAM standard of ‘Excellent’ in sustainable building design while also meeting the ISO 50001 Energy Management Standard. This way of working should then cascade to key suppliers, enabling them to meet similar levels of environmental responsibility. This in turn should help them to reduce the high level of energy used in, for example, the steel manufacturing process.

In logistics, sustainability measures need to extend beyond the environment in which trucks load up or deliver goods. The environmental impact of shipping needs to be considered, which includes contractual fuel consumption limitations for road logistics service providers, ways in which air freight transportation can be reduced, a higher truck fill rate and commitment to the Clean Shipping programme.

These initiatives have already been pursued at SKF, and the results illustrate the degree of success. Between 2006 and 2013, when global sales grew by 20%, energy requirements were simultaneously reduced by 13% and total greenhouse gas emissions from internal operations, particularly carbon dioxide emissions, were reduced by a similar amount.

Products created in harmony with the environment

For engineering businesses, it is critical that products deliver true environmental benefits to customers, without shaking the balance of product performance, quality or reliability in service.

This can be achieved by offering products or solutions that deliver environmental benefits through intrinsic features, such as low friction or weight savings. In addition, product or solutions should discernibly help to enhance the environmental performance of the customer application in which it is used.

The smarter future for production

As smart factories and the Internet of Things continues to proliferate the manufacturing landscape, the increase in intelligent devices that use sophisticated control and automation networks will continue to have an impact on sustainability across this sector.

For the immediate future, streamlining and modernising production operations will continue to reduce energy and water use while extending machine life. This in turn will reduce scrap or waste levels.

In the long-term, the acquired data and experiences from operating smart systems will enable businesses to create a new generation of manufacturing machinery and processes. This information can then be utilised to influence the design and build of both premises and production lines. This data and analysis will also afford the opportunity to re-engineer current systems to achieve new levels of sustainability across a global manufacturing landscape that is only likely to become even more competitive. With businesses rigidly adhering to CSR initiatives, regardless of the peaks and troughs of the global economy, it will not be the environment that is sacrificed in order to ensure profitability.

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