sustainable manufacturing, lean, manufacturing

Reducing Waste is Not a Fad

On the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website you’ll find a comprehensive list of case studies about sustainable manufacturing. These are businesses that have cut energy consumption, reduced water usage and increased their use of recycling. Altruism may have played a part, but for the most part the motivation was very simple: to improve efficiency, lower costs and ready their businesses for the future.

Sustainable Manufacturing Defined

The U.S. Department of Commerce uses this definition: “The creation of manufactured products that use processes that minimize negative environmental impacts, conserve energy and natural resources, are safe for employees, communities, and consumers and are economically sound.”

If you’re a manufacturer you might ask what’s new about that. Responsible manufacturers have long prioritized those areas, although “sustainability” brings added focus to “green” product design.

Waste Reduction has Long Been a Manufacturing Priority

Henry Ford didn’t start the manufacturing industry’s drive for greater efficiency, but he certainly gave it a push in that direction. Along with efficiency experts like the Gilbreths, Ford strove to eliminate waste from production. After WWII, Toyota picked up the baton and developed the Toyota Production System, a major precursor for what is more commonly known as Lean Manufacturing.

Lean is about systematically identifying and eliminating waste. It drives manufacturers to maximize the value they extract from every resource: materials, energy, space and people. Toyota made this a priority because natural resources were scarce in post-WWII Japan.

Today we look at resource consumption through a different lens: that of sustainability. Manufacturers look at sustainability because they want to:

  • Lower costs through increased efficiency
  • Anticipate and mitigate the impact of future environmental and safety regulations
  • Respond to current customers demands and show potential customers their commitment to manufacturing responsibly

More Focus on the Product

Where sustainable manufacturing goes beyond Lean is in how it looks at the product. It expands the emphasis on waste by addressing the wider environmental impact of the products being designed and manufactured. Though, our interest here is more on manufacturing operations than product design.

Real-world Examples

Manufacturers around the world are making great strides toward improving sustainability. If you’re not already on that path some of your competitors probably are!

As mentioned before, the EPA has compiled a set of sustainable manufacturing case studies to show what can be done. These are available on their website, and we’ll highlight a couple here. Illustrating the global nature of this trend, other examples are provided on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) website, and we’ll share one of those as well.

Energy Efficiency

Semiconductor fabricators use large volumes of compressed air and pump great quantities of water. A plant in Austin, Texas, carried out a study to identify energy saving opportunities in these areas. After implementing several improvement projects they cut annual electricity and gas consumption by 28 million kWh and 26,000 million Btu respectively. Annual savings totaled more than $2 million.

In another example, a manufacturer of sliding doors worked with North Carolina State University to identify energy saving opportunities. Through a combination of lighting upgrades and changes to their compressed air systems they found savings of $25,000 per year.


Many manufacturers send scrap product to landfills. One reduction approach is to increase yields, another is to recycle more. A manufacturer of glass components for the automotive industry, based in Indiana, found ways to recycle unused glass cullet, fiberglass and polyvinyl chloride rather than sending it to the landfill. This resulted in savings of over $360,000. Incidentally, the plant is also certified to the ISO 14001 Environmental Management standard.

Lower Consumption

Chemicals can become a problem for manufacturers in many ways. They often pose health and safety risks and emissions into water or the surrounding air can cause long-lasting harm to factory workers and local residents. A U.K. company in the construction industry was using 164 tons of solvents a year that were difficult to deal with. A concerted R&D effort identified opportunities for both substitution and consumption reduction. This cut usage to just 24 tons per year and avoided the cost of upgrading electrical equipment to meet standards for flameproofing.

Making the Move Toward Sustainability

Much like adopting Lean Manufacturing, sustainable manufacturing is about the journey rather than the destination. While management commitment is essential, it also helps to utilize the technologies available. Smart sensors, pervasive connectivity, advanced analytics and advanced computing – in other words, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – are key. Forward thinking manufacturers are already putting these technologies to work while others are investigating their potential.

Perhaps you identify the IIoT as smart manufacturing or tie it directly to Industry 4.0. Perhaps you’ve heard of it but aren’t sure what it can do for you. Whichever camp you fall into, have a look at our white paper, “No Matter What You Call It: Industry 4.0 Means Manufacturing in Transition”.

What sustainable practices have most improved your manufacturing operations? Share your comments in the section below.