Ford and Toyota have taken different routes to incorporating reduced-emissions production techniques in their respective manufacturing plants

It’s well over a decade since the first hybrid cars appeared, a move that served to kick-start the idea of a more environmentally-responsible automotive industry in the public consciousness. Over the past decade, environmental concerns have become more holistic, with increasingly sophisticated consumers expanding their understanding of ‘green’ issues. For the car industry, this mans that selling a vehicle with an ‘alternative’ drivetrain isn’t enough, particularly if it’s rolling out of a plant that still manufactures according to principles laid down the in the Dark Ages; what price a hybrid that saves a few tonnes of CO2 on the road if those gains are wasted in a construction process dependent on fossil fuel, profligate water usage and unnecessary landfill deposits? This, then, is the new battleground.

Fortunately, the journey towards sustainability isn’t necessarily a loss leader. The challenge for the automotive industry is more a question of adapting its attitudes, both to the big ticket items – such as the lengthy amortisation of alternative power generation projects – but also small scale change, the backing of shopfloor-led projects that individually save a few tonnes of CO2, but result in genuine progress when installed across a whole factory.

In the European theatre, it is Ford that has put forward the most obvious signs of its green power generation ambitions, with the giant wind turbines that tower over its diesel engine plant in Dagenham, England and the company’s manufacturing facility in Genk, Belgium. But these are the visible side of a much larger operation that also targets the use of renewable energy sources, including photovoltaic and hydroelectricity, alongside better utilisation of combined heat and power generation.

Ford of Europe’s approach is not uniform across its operation, indeed it appears to be rather unsystematic, but Tomy Mueller, Renewable Energy Co-ordinator at Ford Land, says this is the way it has worked out. “We look at every plant individually. Obviously, they are all different and therefore have different energy requirements. An assemblyonly plant will be a much lower consumer of energy than one that also has stamping on site, for example. The plants all have different layouts and different opportunities to adopt green power – we have to treat each one as unique.”

Feed-in tariffs
“Additionally, we need to study the external factors,” continues Mueller. “You can’t build a wind turbine in a region without a reliable air stream, and a photovoltaic installation is going to work better in Southern Spain than Northern Europe, but beyond the meteorological there are financial issues to consider. Feed-in tariffs vary, depending on the country and its current level of government support for green initiatives. In Germany and the UK, for example, the support is very strong.”

Used by most countries in the developed world, the feed-in tariff [FiT] is a mechanism used to encourage development of renewable power sources. It involves a mixture of incentive payments for generating electricity from clean sources, plus a guaranteed long-term rate for excess energy returned to the national grid. The former measure is designed to incentivise installation, while the latter encourages over-capacity.

Solar power installations
Such is the strength of the FiT programme in certain countries, it overrides the geographic arguments. When Ford first looked into photovoltaic power generation, it chose to site the test assembly not at one of its facilities in sunny Spain, but rather at its engine plant in Bridgend, UK. The Bridgend PV array, based on an idea conceived in the late 1990s, was a deliberately difficult installation, which served to prove out the concept of solar power as a viable technology in northern latitudes; even by British standards, the area is known for its cloud cover. Additionally, by adapting an existing plant instead of opting to install the array as part of a new build, Ford was able to assess the effect of the new technology in an aging environment.

“When you talk about putting solar panels on a roof, yes, it would be less expensive to incorporate them into a new building,” says Mueller. “A solar project will take between 10 and 12 years to achieve any return on investment and realistically will be in place for 20 to 22 years under a typical FiT agreement. The simple requirement for a roof installation is that it to needs to stay in place for that length of time without requiring major repairs.”

The Bridgend experiment was a partnership between Ford, Ove Arup and BP Solar. It consists of 26 individual fixed arrays, each comprising ten 1,900mm x 1,550mm modules connected to a dedicated inverter. The invertors are networked to a roof-mounted substation and grid connected to a three-phase 400V distribution system. Nominally targeted to deliver 94.5kWp (kilowatt peak) the intention was to produce around 80,300kWh a year, though with updated technology and power management software the system is now generating approximately 110,000kWh. This translates to enough power to light approximately 10,000m2. In context, the Bridgend site covers 140,000m2, though the true value is as a forerunner to larger, more encompassing installations on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Michigan Assembly Plant and Ford Valencia, both of which will be making hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles. This will send out precisely the right message: green cars manufactured with green electricity.

Ford’s preferred method of operation on renewables projects is to partner with local utility providers. The wind turbines in Dagenham are owned and operated by Ecotricity, while the nearby Dunton Technical Centre is powered by renewable electricity sourced from GDF. In Belgium, Electrabel is responsible for the turbines in Genk, while in Germany, the Merkenich Technical Centre is heated using by-product steam piped from the electricity power station operated by local utility RheinEnergie.

In a larger deal with RheinEnergie, Ford sources all of the electrical power for Merkenich and the nearby Niehl plants from hydroelectric power sources. Three Scandinavian hydro projects have a combined deal to supply 480,000MWh a year. Based on a mean average of electricity generation from fossil fuel power stations, this would cut approximately 190,000 tonnes of CO2 from Ford Cologne’s carbon footprint.

In most other cases, Ford takes its electricity from the grid like any other user. The method that allows it to claim its power is sourced from renewables comes through the European Energy Certificate Scheme. Producers of power from renewables are awarded certificates, usually one for every megawatt of electricity produced. A market and associated monitoring system have developed to trade the certificates, allowing consumers to specify their chosen energy provider, essentially encouraging the demand for power from renewable sources.

Local generation
However, the biggest benefits are to be found with the on-site generation projects. With a third turbine due to enter operation at the Dagenham facility, the site will become (electrically) self-sufficient, making the 11,500MWh site immune from energy price fluctuations. Though with Dagenham now in it’s ninth decade of production, its suitability was more luck than good judgement. In the future, the potential for green power is likely to be a factor in Ford’s choice of new locations, and also which car goes into which plant.

“We always look at the potential for green energy when commissioning a new facility, and I certainly would not rule out a beneficial environmental position being a factor, but it won’t be the only factor,” says Mueller. “We could build in the perfect location for solar cells, for consistent airflow and even wave power – but how much energy would be expended getting the finished product to the customer? Or accommodating a workforce near the plant? Environmental questions are often about achieving a balance.”

Ford’s own statistics report that CO2 emissions per vehicle produced have consistently dropped over the last five years, from 1.32 tonnes in 2004 to 1.05 tonnes in 2009. In part, the reduction is down to a greater reliance on renewable power, though Ford also says that currently its worldwide use of renewables only accounts for 3% of total energy usage. One relevant piece of data missing from Ford’s figures is the cost of switching to green power. This, Mueller concedes, is difficult to quantify.

“A great deal depends on the market prices for energy, the level of government support for green initiatives and also the capacity being used at any given time. The downturn that began in 2008 is a good example. When production volumes go down, the energy consumption per vehicle goes up. However, with (fossil) energy costs trending upwards, it’s logical to increase our green energy percentage. In the short term it can be more expensive, but in order to become green, that’s the way you have to go.”

Toyota’s UK manufacturing operation is a slightly different case to that of Ford. One of five plants worldwide that Toyota classes as an ‘Eco-Factory’, the facility at Burnaston, UK (TMUK) manufactures Avensis, Auris and Auris Hybrid models. A second facility in Deeside, UK produces petrol engines. Daughter plant to the Japanese Tsutsumi factory, home of the Toyota Prius, TMUK is still in the initial stages of generating renewable energy, with an array of three solar panels currently operating in a proof-of-concept experiment. Dave Chapman, Assistant General Manager, Facilities & Environment: “As a sustainable plant, increasing the use of renewable resources is important so we’ve done detailed studies, but the current (economic) climate hasn’t allowed us to follow those as quickly as we might like. At the moment we are studying what will be a large take-up of photovoltaic.” “We have to take strides into the area of renewables and logically, that means an investment of this type,” adds Marvin Cooke, Director of Production Operations. “We think solar panel PV is a logical step and the small installation here is to see what kind of performance we can achieve if we decide to scale up. Based on our research, we think we might be able to generate around 25% of our peak electrical consumption from PV. However, at Toyota we believe kaizen should come before investment. Reduce, reuse and recycle is a phrase never far from our thoughts.”

Kaizen initiatives
Toyota’s devotion to continuous improvement has always been the defining characteristic of its production operations. As such, its attitude to the elimination of waste was heavily entrenched before it became fashionable. In an interesting counterpoint to the vogue for renewables, Toyota reduces its CO2 output via conventional energy savings. Obviously every manufacturer is doing the same, but with the notion firmly embedded at the core of Toyota, it perhaps does it better.

“Our main intention is to reach environmental leadership through the whole vehicle cycle,” says Cooke. “The aim is zero emissions. We’re not there yet, but we are moving towards it. It isn’t something that we’ve suddenly decided; from the start of production in 1992, this plant has always championed environmental performance. Between then and now we have reduced all of our environmental impacts in the order of between 60 and 75% – by which I’m talking about our energy usage (-68%), our water usage (-70%), VOCs (-70%), and waste (-60%). In 1996, we were the first to be accredited to ISO 14001. We reached zero waste-tolandfill in 2003 and zero incineration in 2008.”

As is the case in most of the industry, the global recession has not helped Toyota’s environmental metrics. Cooke, however, sees a silver lining in the way the Burnaston plant has adapted. “It’s certainly been a great challenge. A fair amount of the energy we use in the plant is fixed, so if we’re making one car or one million, we’re still going to light the building. What we’ve targeted, therefore, is to use the downturn to accelerate our kaizen activities. It has given us time, when we’re not building cars, to strengthen the foundation of our business. Our first priority is health and safety, but second is the environment. We’re proud to say that in a year when our production volume roughly halved, we managed to keep our per-vehicle energy and water consumption constant.”

“Some of this has come from management, but primarily the activity is driven by the members (employees),” adds Chapman. “It’s their views on what can be switched off sooner, what temperatures can be lowered, what equipment can be better used, etc., that pushes the process forward.”

One of Burnaston’s most impressive energy reduction programmes involves the way on-site utilities are managed. Originally running three 25,000kg/hr capacity boilers, steam for the plant is now provided from one 10,000kg/hr capacity unit. Rather than being the result of a single, specific programme, the change has come about as a result of a series of unconnected kaizen activities.

Paint is the big energy user, accounting for 54% of Burnaston’s total energy usage, with temperature and humidity control in the four spraying booths accounting for most of that. A new predictive control system reduced the amount of steam required by 40%, reducing CO2 output by an equal percentage.

“We did a lot of work with the paintshop on boiler startup,” says Chapman. “Originally, on a cold morning in winter we would need to capture a steam load in excess of 30 tonnes, for which we would require two of our three large boilers running, with the other one available on stand by. We’ve reduced that requirement by lowering the distribution pressure from its original 2.5bar and by manually trimming airflow through the booths.

“Standard practise would be to keep the boiler running once it’s started. We now shut down between shifts and also when some minor automation tells us demand has fallen below a set level. Together this saves around 500,000kg of CO2 per year.

“In the utility building we’ve completed activities that seem quite simple but hadn’t been thought of before. One team member used a thermal camera to study heat loss from the boilers. With a small investment in cladding and a lot of experimentation we managed to save another 93,000kg of CO2 per year by lowering heat losses.

Reverse osmosis
“Another innovation is our reverse osmosis plant,” continues Dave Chapman. “We were previously consuming around 3m3 of water per vehicle, which we considered a little high. We wanted to be under 2m3. Our emphasis was on reuse. When the quality is good enough, instead of going to waste water treatment the waste streams go through the process before being used for steam-generation. It helped us get our water usage down to less than 1.8m3 per car, as we put around 100,000 tonnes of water per year through the plant. But a side effect is the water is so clean we’ve been able to reduce our descaling operations and have also seen thermal efficiency in our boilers improve by 1.5%.”

Together with other successful kaizen activities, Toyota managed to chip away at it’s steam demand while also improving the efficiency of its boilers. Today, of the three 25,000kg/hr boilers, one has been stripped for parts, another has been taken out of service and the third is used as a stand by to the smaller 10,000kg/hour unit. Previously the emergency back-up, it now provides all of the steam required by the plant.

Toyota management insist that any credit should go to the shopfloor, claiming their role is to ensure information is disseminated to everyone at the factory. All the data on electricity, gas, water, compressed air, etc., is reported and plotted against targets, printed and prominently displayed in near real-time.

Cooke puts forward the idea of an ‘eco-mind’, with the view that embedding the idea of sustainable development into the mindset of the workforce will improve the process and effectively ensure it runs itself. One of the latest Burnaston innovations is an eco-card – think Scouting badges for environmental awareness. Interestingly, Toyota doesn’t differentiate between environmental improvements completed in the factory and those carried out in the home. “It’s all connected,” he says. “We were identified by Toyota as a sustainable plant long before we introduced the Auris Hybrid to the line, but the presence of that helps complete the circle. We have a lean plant, we are producing a green car, and we have a workforce with an eco-mind. Those three things come together to help us complete the picture.” With Toyota’s factory in Valenciennes, France, another designated Eco-Plant, its European operations are able to boast a 38% reduction in total energy consumed (as measured in BTUs) per manufactured car. Comparing that to Ford’s performance is a moot exercise, as more of Ford’s energy is sourced from renewables - it could have a more wasteful production process without necessarily having a larger CO2 output. What is interesting is that both giant carmakers are confident of their ability to accelerate this pace of change. Ford sees its future in rolling out at least one major green energy initiate for each production plant in its empire, while Toyota argues that every new model it brings to production provides another opportunity to introduce step-changes to its energy usage metrics.

Both companies speak to their achievements with a degree of pride, though neither suggests that the great strides they have made towards sustainable manufacturing is going to be a product differentiator. It’s an interesting thought, given that both are committed to a mass volume rollout of greener vehicles over the next decade. Perhaps green manufacturing is no longer something to be eulogised. Instead, to the consumer it has become the minimum accepted standard.