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Engineering a sustainable future

2015 February 04, 08:41 CEST

As environmental concerns become ever more important to engineering and manufacturing companies, forward thinking organisations can use sustainability to boost profits and business performance, as well as helping their customers and the planet, says Rob Jenkinson, Director of Corporate Sustainability, SKF

In one way or another, every stage of the manufacturing process has an impact on the environment.  This applies whether it’s the raw materials a business chooses to use, the energy used in production operations, or the way in which products are disposed of at the end of their useful life.  Although it’s  extremely challenging with current technology and global economic conditions to expect any operation to achieve 100% efficiency and net positive impact, that doesn’t mean that as manufacturers, engineers and business leaders we shouldn’t set this as a desirable goal.

Although corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies have been around in one form or another for many years, the global financial meltdown in 2008-09 caused many organisations to postpone or cancel many of their environmental initiatives. Others however maintained their focus as they realised the potential bottom line benefits that such policies can have.  With the economy slowly recovering, this situation is now changing as more and more business leaders recognise that a strong, consistent and strategic CSR policy, which is embedded into the core values of an organisation, can deliver real and measurable value for each business, its stakeholders, employees and customers.

For companies such as SKF, sustainability has been a core business principle for many years.  It forms a key driver for innovation, covering everything from our factory and office construction, to our production processes, use of energy and water, and in the design and delivery of our products and services.

SKF BeyondZero: A new perspective

In 2006, we implemented a new strategy for actively and quantifiably reducing our environmental impact, as well as that of our customers and suppliers. This strategy, named SKF BeyondZero, has become a critical part of our DNA, consisting of two complementary goals. The first is to reduce the negative environmental impact from our own operations and those of our suppliers. The second is to innovate and offer our customers new technologies, products and services that enable them to reduce energy use and waste.

Over the years, as a result of applied research and development in the area of environmental life cycle management, we have acquired a much broader understanding of the environmental performance of our activities, products and solutions. We have learnt about the environmental impact our activities have at the different stages of the value chain; everything from the raw materials selected, how these are utilised and processed, the energy used by SKF products when used in customers’ applications and what happens to the products after the end of life.This has made us realise that environmental impacts can be reduced in every stage of the value chain and that the greatest potential is found in the use phase – the way in which our products and solutions perform in each customer’s application.

Manufacturing efficiency

In practice, we have been taking significant steps over a number of years to improve our own manufacturing operations.  All new factories and logistics centres, wherever they are in the world are built to the latest LEED building standards and the ISO 50001 Energy Management Standard.  We have also been working with our key suppliers to help them meet similar levels of environmental responsibility and to reduce the level of energy used in, for example, the energy intensive steel manufacturing process.

In logistics we have been working with our transport partners to reduce the environmental impact of shipping.  This includes contractual fuel consumption limitations for road logistics service providers, the decreased use of air freight, a high truck fill rate and involvement in the Clean Shipping programme.

The impact of these initiatives have been considerable.  Between 2006 and 2013, when our global sales grew by 20%, we reduced our energy requirements by 13% and our total greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide emissions, from our own operations by a similar figure.

Product lifecycle management

A key component of the SKF BeyondZero concept is management of the life cycle of a product, from initial development to final disposal.  Various studies have shown that many products have the greatest environmental impact during their use in customer applications; in terms of total life cycle carbon emissions, this can be as much as 75%.

SKF products that fall within our SKF BeyondZero portfolio, which is growing fast, have to meet tough criteria to ensure that they deliver real environmental benefits to each customer, without affecting product performance, quality or reliability in service.  These criteria fall into two categories:

  • Designed for environment: the product or solution has to provide environmental benefits in its own right through some inherent characteristics, such as low friction or weight saving
  • Applied for environment: the product or solution must demonstrably help to improve the environmental performance of the customer application in which it is used
Typical examples of SKF BeyondZero portfolio products and solutions include energy efficient high-speed permanent magnet motors for use with aeration blowers in waste-water treatment plant.  These can reduce energy use by up to 40%, providing both commercial and environmental advantages.  Similarly, SKF Sealed Energy Efficient (E2) deep groove ball bearings significantly reduce frictional movement, leading to potential energy savings; although these may be relatively modest for each bearing, when the cumulative impact over time of replacing all bearings used in industrial motors, pumps and fans is considered then these savings can be considerable.  Other developments include the fully-sealed SKF ConRo roll line unit for use in continuous casting operations in the steel industry; this can reduce CO2 emissions by an estimated 1.5 tons per roll line per year.

Becoming smart

The increasingly rapid move towards smart factories, where intelligent devices such as SKF Insight bearings, are used in sophisticated control and automation networks, will inevitably have a major impact on sustainability in the manufacturing sector.  In the short term, the ability to smartify production operations will reduce energy and water use, and extend machine life to reduce scrap or waste still further.  Longer term, the acquired data and experiences from running smart systems will help companies develop a new generation of manufacturing tools and processes, and may also impact the design and construction of both premises and production lines.  In each case there will be the opportunity to re-engineer existing systems to meet the challenges of ever better sustainability in an increasingly tough and competitive global environment.

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