If the term ‘sustainability’ was an actual stock, shares under its name would be soaring in value and popularity in today’s complex business world. You can count the manufacturing industry now as one of its potential investors, as engineers from Oregon State University have formulated a new method of sustainable manufacturing that takes every factor – including economic, social, and environmental – into account when evaluating a manufacturer’s level of accountability in how they operate their business. One of the study’s leading contributors, Karl Haapala, an OSU assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering, talks about what the study found, the dynamic nature of sustainability, and how manufacturers today are currently approaching it. Steve Engelhardt reports.
Published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, Haapala says that sustainability can be characterized by a “triple bottom line.” “If you’re looking at this triple bottom line, which accounts for environmental, economic, and social aspects, it encompasses all of the issues manufacturers have to worry about and should be taken into account when drawing up their production processes,” he says, adding, “But the challenge is there are so many different metrics that feed into each of these three areas, and the problem becomes ‘Okay, how do I effectively compare these against one another?”
He says that while engineers within companies are well equipped to identify these factors, they are often hesitant to do so, because “across organizations, different people will have different values and competing interests, in terms of what is most important to their company.”
Method of Measurement
Reacting to this dilemma, Haapala and his graduate research assistant, Hao Zhang, developed a method that would allow “companies to be able to apply their own value judgements to help make a decision specific to their company’s goals and needs.” He says that with this ‘decision-making aspect’, there are two parts to take into account. The first is that, once an individual has defined and quantified their metrics, they then apply their own value judgements to the metrics, and determine how important one metric is from another.
Haapala says that this method can apply the Analytic Hierarchy Process, and once a company’s metrics are established, they can then move onto the second stage; the decision making part of the process. “Once we get to the decision making aspect, we utilize an outranking method called Promethee, where companies rank alternative solutions and see which is the most viable given the way their metrics were quantified,” he says.
Haapala says he and his colleagues gathered their findings through a couple of collaborative studies, one being with the Benchmade Knife Company, an Oregon-based knife manufacturer. “They wanted to figure out a way improve the quality of their blades, with respect to their machining processes.” Together, the research team looked at the machining parameters that were affecting the product’s integrity, the subsequent cost from varying wear rates of tools, the effects of downtime, as well as throughput, “because the amount of knives you are producing could have a stronger environmental impact if made at greater numbers, such as extra amounts of waste being generated.”
Through the study, they found that if machines were drawing a little more energy than before, it would lead to greater savings in operator time, and energy in terms of heating and lighting. “Looking at it from a ‘per-unit’ standpoint, if parts are moving faster, then they’re not occupying an amount of space for as much time, and from there, you can begin to connect the dots in terms of other companies’ situations.”
Beyond the Surface
At the heart of it, he says that the goal is to “consider all the issues in every step of the process,”
adding, so that sustainability is built into the entire manufacturing system.” He says that the study is aimed specifically at small and medium sized-manufacturing companies, where every dollar counts in their respective business. “As a small manufacturer, you might not understand where a lot of the costs are going or which product lines are more profitable than others, because overall, you’re doing well,” he says, adding, “however, there are a multitude of unseen costs that they’re simply unaware of, such as the length of shelf life for a product.”
What Haapala is saying is that while most companies are focused on their finances, many are unaware of the complexity of factors that surround their business, such as the ones stemming from environmental or social issues. He says that for starters, it’s important to attach strict dollar figures to factors such as energy use and hours of labor, because while they may seem insignificant at the time, down the road it will be easier to make connections and identify cost cutting areas. “If we’re talking about energy use, companies need to consider where the energy is coming from,” he says, adding, “say it’s all coming from a coal power plant that is putting out CO2 or nitrous oxides, well that’s something the company should better understand or else it could lead to an entire new group of issues, such as social ones stemming from a health standpoint.”
Haapala says that the social factors have been particularly difficult to quantify and measure, from a scientific standpoint, in the past. Yet he also cannot dismiss their significance to a company’s identity, as they often have far reaching consequences. “If you’re calculating labor hours, you have a good handle on what’s happening to workers in their environment, how much time they’re spending on each machine, and what that may mean in terms of injuries.” Extending beyond the workplace, there are other factors like the local community and workers’ families, which are too important to just dismiss from a company’s standpoint.
In order to better understand these ‘qualitative’ issues that come about with environmental and social issues, Haapala says that he and his team have tried to incorporate previous concepts of sustainability, such as a lifecycle assessment of systems that, for example, considers the sum amount of energy used, as well as environmental impacts and other issues. “The significant thing about our approach is that it lets manufacturers make value judgements about which issues are most important to them, allowing the system to prioritize one need over another, should it be necessary.”
Foundation for the Future
With sustainability becoming more and more of a necessity, rather than merely an advantage in today’s world, Haapala says that he’s starting to finally see manufacturers take notice and responsibility. “In the late 90s, sustainability reporting was highly rudimentary in nature, and there were probably only a hundred or so companies in total that were issuing out sustainability reports.” Today, that figure has increased exponentially, which means a whole new host of established metrics for companies to roughly work off of.
At the end of the day, Haapala says that companies are doing this is much greater numbers from consumer-driven motives, as well as moral accountability.” “For sustainable manufacturing to become a reality, we need to establish a work environment where companies understand that not only do they have to meet their customers’ demands, but also regulations that have been laid out, where they have a firm grasp on the source of any problem that arises.”
Although sustainable manufacturing appears to be the future of the modern day production plant, Haapala says the relatively “qualitative” nature of the findings right now make it a tough sell to companies who are only concerned about their bottom line. However, as research progresses and more companies begin to understand the ‘triple bottom line’ reality that comes with running a manufacturing business, sustainable systems may soon catch on in all levels of manufacturing.