Environmental initiatives at GM and Ford are bringing real benefits across the manufacturing process and adding up well on the bottom line 

In the early days of environmentally aware automotive manufacturing, it was always assumed that being green came at a cost. It was the demands of environmentally aware customers and tough legislation, both in finished product and manufacturing processes, which drove the trend. But over recent years there has been a gradual realisation that aside from good marketing, being green can deliver both financial and productivity benefits.

In North America, GM facilities have reduced nonrecycled waste by over 67 per cent since 1997 by either eliminating the generation of waste or increasing recycling. These same North American facilities currently recycle nearly 88 per cent of the waste they generate. Globally, the recycling rate for GM facilities is approximately 86 per cent.

GM gets waste wise

GM was one of the first organisations – and to date is the only auto manufacturer – inducted into the US EPA WasteWise Hall of Fame. This recognition was the result of continual outstanding waste reduction and recycling efforts at the carmaker.

Three GM facilities in the US have achieved landfill-free status with all waste generated either recycled or converted to energy. These include engine plants in Tonawanda, New York and Flint, Michigan, and an engine testing and high performance engine-manufacturing site in Wixom, Michigan.

The Flint Engine South plant, for example, recycled 6,700 tons of metals, 786 tons of used oil, 95 tons of cardboard, 75 tons of wood, 53 tons of scrap plastic, 21 tons of batteries, and 9 tons of office paper in a recent 12-month period. In addition, the plant sent 211 tons of paper and industrial waste to a waste-to-energy incinerator.

GM is one of the world's largest recyclers of used oil. All bulk oil used in GM plants in North America is available for recycling. GM generates about six million gallons of oil a year that can be recycled and purchases about five million gallons of refined and reclaimed oil.

“Recycling has been a long-term effort for GM,” Dan McComb, Senior Environmental Engineer at the Flint South engine plant explains. “Traditionally, GM has recycled lots of things and I think, as environmental awareness grew, it pursued a policy of maximising that recycling effort. We have just been looking for more and more things that are easy to recycle, such as metals; we did that and we continue to do that to maximise the waste streams and keep them clean so that they can be better utilised. We just kept pushing to the extent that the percentage amounts were recycled until we were up into the high 90s.”

From a corporate perspective, John Bradbury, Senior Environmental Engineer for GM, explains that they looked at the recycling data from Flint at a corporate level, saw that the site was getting close to a zero landfill position and paid them a visit. “We met with the management at Flint and then Dan talked amongst his leadership and we decided to go for it and instituted a couple of special recycling programmes aimed at achieving zero landfill and Dan was able to accomplish this.”

By products initiative

Helping GM meet its environmental goals is a key strategy, or more accurately a terminology, whereby what was traditionally viewed as waste or a by-product of the manufacturing process is now viewed as a resource out of place.

“We have got a by products initiative going at the moment that looks at everything that is going out of our facilities other than the product itself as a resource, not as a waste,” Bradbury says. “We are putting a system in place to manage them in the best way possible by plugging them into the best programme [this includes] the used oil programme, our plastics, our metals, and certainly we do generate a lot of metals. We have purchasing groups that work specifically on those sorts of things. We are trying to leverage our size and maximise our values from these by products because in our minds there is no waste, there are just resources out of place.”

However, simply identifying and targeting programmes at these products was not enough for GM, it needed to be an holistic approach that covers the entire manufacturing lifecycle.

Design, build and purchasing

At inception there is a programme called Design for the Environment where the ability to recycle and reuse is built into the product design and manufacturing process.

“This is something that we do wherever possible because that is when we can gain the highest value and the best environmental results,” Bradbury says. “Our first focus is on eliminating the waste where possible within our processes, and then we look at recycling the waste. But the real focus is on not creating the waste in the first place.”

At the sharp end of the programme, what was required was a way of changing the purchasing mentality. After by products are sent for recycling GM tries to buy as much of it back as possible, such as the oil in the recycle programme, where five million gallons are repurchased after refining.

When talking about areas that have been targeted successfully, one that will come as no surprise is packaging. But as Bradbury explains, balancing the costs of returnable packaging against the high transportation costs of a global manufacturing environment is a difficult problem.

“Packaging – cardboard, wood, film, strapping – is certainly a big, important issue, especially with the global economy and material movements,” Bradbury continues.

“From any location across the world it is sometimes very challenging to do that, but we try to do that whenever possible. Sometimes we do deal with cardboard and those types of things. We have some nice programmes going in those regards to help inside our facilities: firstly, by not generating them, secondly by reusing those that we do in many instances and, thirdly, asking whether we can recycle them and bring them back in as product. And we have some programmes running now to do that very thing.”

Removing metal

As already mentioned, one of the leading programmes in GM’s arsenal is it oil recycling programme it employs an engineer who works with the corporate staff.

“Metal removal fluids are part of our oil programme and we are looking at commonising these fluids,” Bradbury says. “We are looking to use the same types of fluids within the same facilities, we are looking at dry machining operations, and we are looking a filtration and by products.”

It’s been difficult to achieve the coveted zero landfill status at Flint South and, as McComb recounts, it got harder the closer they got to it. “The thrust of it was that we got higher and higher up the percentages of recycling to where we really weren’t left with too much stuff; we looked at that last bit so that we would not be sending anything directly to landfill,” he says.

“We have been recycling oil for years and years, so the emphasis there was not just getting it recycled and used for energy but getting it returned as a product, and I think that is significant. GM buys back products that have been recycled, which drives the whole recycling cycle.

“You have to fit all these pieces of the puzzle together and every facility is different, not everything is available in every area and you have to look at what is available. Any type of recycling transportation cost figures in what you can and cannot do in a practical way.”

Green oil and glass

Ford of Europe at its Dagenham facility has two projects that it hopes will reduce the environmental impact of its manufacturing processes: green oil and glass filtration. The green oil project has been up and running for some five years now, while the glass filtration project is in its infancy.

Dagenham is leading the world in using sustainable materials – thanks to machine oil you can cook your chips in. A massive project has resulted in 25 of its 30 coolant systems being converted to run on vegetable oil rather than traditional mineral oils. Vegetable-based oils, produced from crops freshly grown each year, are better for the environment than mineral oils, which come from finite sources.

For glass filtration it is planned that discarded glass will help the plant reach new quality levels in the purification of water for manufacturing. Ford was the first major UK industrial company to adopt glass filtration as a replacement for sand.

Crushed glass, in the form of crushed granules, is used in filtering water for cooling and washing processes, and is more effective than sand. Ford Dagenham discharges 100,000 tons of used water a year and converting to glass filtration will have environmental as well as cost benefits. The system, called Active Filtration Media, also reduces clogging in the filtering process, which leads to a lower use of energy and chemicals.

Replacing emulsions

Clearly when you cut metal you need a large amount of metalworking fluid, both to provide lubrication to the cutting process and to take away the metal that has been cut off. Previously it meant either using a neat oil or an emulsion. The Ford ‘green oil’ programme concentrates on cutting operations that utilise emulsions.

“In Dagenham and Bridgend we probably have two million litres of tanks that contain the emulsion that we use for this purpose,” Stuart Burns, Ford's green oil engineering specialist, says. “Historically we used mineral oil as the basis for that job, but about five years ago we started on a process to replace that mineral oil with vegetable oil-based lubricants.

“The good thing about vegetable oils is that they actually have far better lubrication properties than mineral oils. What that allows you to do is run the metalworking fluid emulsion at much lower concentrations. So not only do you replace non-sustainable oil with a sustainable one, but you use much less as well.”

To put some numbers on that, in 2002 when Ford was on the old technology, the Dagenham engine plant would use 350-400,000 litres a year of old fashioned mineral oil to top up the systems. That is now down to about 150,000 litres of the new type of oil but production has actually increased.

“So you can see we get a good environmental saving as well as a saving on usage,” Burns says. “Right at the beginning it was an environmental initiative. We started off doing some trials just looking at vegetable oil simply for its renewable properties to see what was out there in the marketplace and what could be developed. We didn’t really expect it to do the job better and bring the bigger environmental benefit.

“It also works slightly better on re-using. We pump it back to systems where we filter it and then it is sent back round again. The properties of vegetable oil mean that it cleans residues off the machines far better, whereas mineral oil used to leave deposits, so it has better cleaning and flushing properties as well.”

Pressing need for MQL

Ford has a two-pronged attack on lubricants. In the manufacture of transmission parts, which it doesn't have any of in the UK, very little metal is removed in the cut, so they have the ability to go for minimum quality lubrication (MQL). For the high metal removal of engine manufacturing on the other hand, green oil is the way forward. “In engine manufacture we now have two or three operations using MQL processes, but because we remove so much metal there are not yet that many places where the technology has caught up,” Burns says.

“Effectively you have two solid waste streams coming off these cutting processes: lubricant and metal,” Ben Diggins, Ford Environmental Engineer, explains.

“There is the boring process where you are getting something in the order of 16 to 18 tons of cast-iron borings, as well as several thousand tons of aluminium boring.

“Clearly that has a metallic value and at Dagenham we have pioneered a process where in the past we would have sent that off site wet, covered with mineral oil; that was an environmental issue. With the new vegetable oil process, the fluid comes off the material more readily, but at the same time we press this material. Typically, this type of swarf, when you introduce it into a furnace, it blows out through the stack fairly quickly. So if you are buying a tonne of it you don't get much return on it. However, by pressing it into billets, which is approximately 60 per cent the mass of cast iron, you get a better return.

This means that we are squeezing all the fluids out of it and the material has a better residual value and it is easier to transport.”

The programme has been such a success that Ford have now expanded it to include other types of lubricants.

“One of the reasons that we would dump cutting fluid was because of ingress from other types of lubricants, whether hydraulic oils or spindle oils, that would leak into the emulsion and over a period of time, would degrade it,” Burns explains. “Our new 1.4-litre and 1.6-litre diesel line at Dagenham was launched with 100 per cent compatible fluids. So we used the renewable resource as the hydraulic oil – the spindle oil and the slideway lubricants – so if they leak in we add emulsifier and it turns it all into one emulsion. It provides a positive impact rather than a negative one and I think that we are the first to do that to this degree.

“What we have also done is develop a compatible washing fluid so that when we wash the parts with the emulsion on it, we can use the oily water again to top up the metalworking fluid because all the chemicals are compatible. So the new line has virtually no waste coming off of it.”

Minimum lubrication

The Ford UK engine plants at Dagenham and Bridgend have made savings, both financial and environmental, by replacing a non-sustainable mineral oil with a sustainable vegetable oil, but what if you can reduce the amount of cutting fluid or even eliminate it entirely? That is where the MQL technology comes into its own.

Clearly with the large amount of material removed on block and cylinder production this is not practical, but when you move over the powertrain components the amount of material to be removed is much less and the process becomes more practical.

Ford’s transmission plant in Livonia, Michigan, is dramatically reducing the use of these costly metalworking fluids through the MQL process, as one of several prongs on its sustainability strategy. Combined with other green procedures at powertrain facilities in Ohio, Canada and Mexico, Ford anticipates annual savings of up to $2.8m.

“Our Powertrain facilities are doing an excellent job with sustainability practices,” Barb Samardzich, Vice President, Powertrain Operations (PTO), said. “They're delivering positive results for the environment, for the communities where we do business, and for our shareholders.”

PTO’s Sustainability Strategy has already met or exceeded its reduction targets for 2006. PTO has reduced its energy usage by 3 per cent (exceeding a goal of 1 per cent). It has reduced its water usage by 18.6 per cent since 2000 (exceeding its goal of 18 per cent). It is also in the process of setting 2007 targets for landfill waste reduction.

MQL, a North American industry-first process, is being used at Livonia Transmission to make the company’s sixspeed automatic rear-wheel-drive transmission (6R) for the Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer.

Samardzich says that besides lowering costs and reducing the impact on the environment, MQL is also shortening the manufacturing cycle time and boosting quality.

“It used to be that environmental actions were considered only a cost burden,” Mark Blair, Ford’s Director of PTO Manufacturing Engineering, says. “Now we know that you can save money and improve both the external and manufacturing environments.”

Vacuums and air conditioning

An example of Ford’s commitment to energy saving is the innovative vacuum carburiser process for heat-treating transmission gears that has replaced gas-fired furnaces at Ford’s Sharonville, Ohio, facility. The new process is cleaner, heats more evenly and improves part quality. It is expected to save more than $1m annually, once fully implemented.

Another noteworthy effort is found at the company's Lima, Ohio, facility, which is using naturally cold reusable groundwater from an abandoned quarry to create air conditioning for the plant and also to cool manufacturing equipment. The geothermal process significantly reduced the use of mechanically chilled municipal water, reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.

“Processes like MQL, geothermal and vacuum carburisation address environmental issues and save on cost,” Blair said. “Powertrain couldn’t have been successful in implementing these processes without the commitment and hard work of our people in the plants, our ME group, and in Advanced Manufacturing Technology Development.”

Model for waste

Ford’s Powertrain operation is working closely with the Georgia Institute of Technology to analyse the amount of metal cut off gears during the manufacturing process that ends up going to landfills. The partnership has developed a computer model that allows product and manufacturing teams to communicate more efficiently to reduce landfill waste and other environmental burdens. Product and manufacturing teams use the model to factor environmental and manufacturing costs into design decisions.

They also use the model to compare the environmental costs of new manufacturing technologies to current technologies.

“This is an extremely good project,” Samardzich, explains. “It demonstrates how we can realise substantial reduction in waste generation by making slight adjustments in how we design and manufacture parts.”

Blair added that the Livonia and Sharonville facilities collaborated with PTO Manufacturing and Engineering along with the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Development team to develop sustainable procedures.

Simple cures

However, it does not always have to be a highly technical or managed programme to deliver results. At Ford Canada's Windsor Engine facility they anticipate annual savings of more than $1m annually through simple energy conservation measures. By turning off unnecessary lights, closing doors and shutting down machines and pumps during off times, the plant is on track to more than double its energy reduction objective. It also reduced its compressed air consumption by 45 per cent by shutting off unnecessary equipment and repairing leaks.

The Lima, Ohio, Engine Plant uses cold water from two abandoned limestone quarries on the property to cool a portion of the plant and its equipment. The geothermal system saved Ford $300,000 in installation costs, compared with the cost of installing a traditional cooling tower. It also saves more than $300,000 in annual operating costs. The system earned the 2005 State of Ohio Governor's Award for Excellence in Energy, and the Design-Build Institute of America's 2005 National Award.

In drought-plagued Mexico, Ford's Chihuahua plant slashed its potable water consumption by nearly 75 per cent between 2000 and 2005. By using diesel generators during peak hours along with other measures, the plant also reduced its energy costs by 27.5 per cent for a projected savings of $608,000.

“As the cost of energy continues to escalate, the cost benefit to sustainability projects becomes more substantial,” Linda Miller, Director of Manufacturing, PTO, says. “Powertrain is taking a strong stand on the environment and reducing its manufacturing cost, which is outstanding.”

Responsibility in manufacturing

PTO is rolling out an Environmental Operating System over the next two years, designed to maximise environmental responsibility in manufacturing. “It’s a forward look and not a reactive look,” says Terry Aldea, PTO Manufacturing and Engineering Manager. “We're trying to give environmental the same amount of attention and due diligence that we've always given to safety.”

There will be no escaping the growing focus on environmental issues in automotive manufacturing, but now that the major OEMs have grasped the nettle and learned how to meet their obligations at the same time as delivering measurable improvements to productivity and the bottom line, the trend is bound to grow. Soon it may be impossible to separate environmental strategy from the corporate plan itself, so core to the company's success is a solid environmental grounding.