High energy costs are not only helping to drive the U.S. political debate, they've made consumers sensitive to their environmental footprint—in their homes, cars, offices, and even kitchen appliances. It's no wonder that more manufacturers are placing an increased emphasis on sustainable manufacturing and energy efficiency.
Beginning in 1992 with the Energy Star designation, manufacturers were required to reduce new appliance energy use by 20-30%. Energy-efficient refrigerators, air conditioners, and computers began replacing older models. Bright stickers flagged household appliances that promised to save significant amounts in energy costs.
By transitioning to increasingly efficient appliances, Americans last year saved the equivalent of $16 billion in electric costs—equaling 27 million cars' worth of greenhouse emissions, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
A key goal of appliance manufacturers is to more efficiently utilize the energy required to run the appliance. For example, in ovens and cooktops, wasted heat translates to lost energy. Induction technology, one of the most efficient ways to reduce heat loss, uses a full 90% of the energy produced. This compares with 75% for electric ranges and 40% for gas burners, according to DOE.
Energy-efficient appliance manufacturing begins with a thorough review of materials, processes, energy, and waste. Each one of these areas can offer significant opportunities for higher energy efficiency. Many companies have developed their own environmental initiatives that best match their unique manufacturing requirements, in addition to such international standards as environmental management systems (EMS) and ISO certifications.
Manufacturers that use eco-friendly materials or reduce the use of harmful materials in their processes can establish the kind of "eco-friendly" products consumers want. For example, in producing Ceran glass-ceramic cooktop panels, Schott eliminated antimony and arsenic, two heavy metals typically used to remove bubbles created during the manufacturing process for cooling the cooktop. Just by cutting the use of toxic metals, we were able to remove 180 tons of toxic heavy metals from production lines this year.
Companies can spend plenty on consultants that advise them how to decrease the environmental impact of their production and help identify where inefficiencies exist. Experience has shown that the best consultants of all can be found right on the production lines. These employees are not only able to pinpoint where improvements can be made, but also show you which materials are being wasted, and which processes can be tweaked to make them better, safer, and faster.
In addition to changing production processes to reduce energy consumption, many companies are exploring ways to offset their energy requirements by utilizing renewable energy sources. Many of these, such as photovoltaic panels and solar thermal water heaters, represent fixed-cost energy solutions that hedge against rising energy costs from the grid. Solar may not provide all the power, but at our technology center in Mainz, Germany, photovoltaics produce enough energy to offset the annual power requirements of 25 homes. In addition, solar power is an effective hedge against possible carbon offset legislation.
All too often, manufacturing results in significant waste. For instance, wastewater is frequently just disposed of—along with its reusable contents. Manufacturers have begun to recycle, but many do not yet treat minimizing waste as a means to minimizing costs. The cost of disposing of scrap, hazardous chemicals, and heavy metals has increased tremendously and will continue to in the years ahead.
Traditionally, manufacturing facilities are located in energy inefficient buildings that are erected with minimal initial capital investment. Retrofitting to improve insulation, provide natural daylight, and stabilize airflow will yield long-term savings. Additionally, sites with natural daylight and clean air provide a better work environment, resulting in improved employee morale.
Packaging represents one of the largest areas for waste reduction. There are many alternatives to traditional solutions that can reduce waste, and, in the long run, reduce costs. Switching to plastic pallets from wood, for instance, extends their usable life. And by using banding materials, instead of shrink-wrap, a manufacturer can minimize the use of plastics. Companies can also maximize reusable or recyclable packaging, like cardboard, that have a minimal environmental impact, and allow the end-consumer to be a part of the chain of reduce, reuse, recycle.
Consumers will increasingly be "shopping green" in the years ahead. Appliance manufacturers must respond by "producing green" as well. Eco-friendly manufacturing may well cost more in the short term, but it will ultimately yield savings and market opportunities in the long run.
That's a solution we can all live with.
Eric Urruti is director of research and development for Schott North America Inc. (Elmsford, NY, U.S.; www.us.schott.com). He has also worked at Red Sky Systems and Corning Inc., with a background in nanomaterials, coatings, and polymers. He holds a PhD in polymers and coatings from North Dakota State University and a BS in chemistry from Indiana University. If you wish to contact Urruti, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.