Sustainability, Interrupted

Sustainability Makes Business Sense as Well as Good Policy. The Public will Demand It and Science and Technology Will Make It Happen

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This article was printed in CONTROL's March 2009 edition.

Keith LarsonBy Keith Larson, VP Content, Putman Media

“The current economic climate will not derail convergence around sustainability,” contends Alan Hecht, director for sustainability for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.   Hecht addressed several hundred automation industry leaders at the ARC Advisory Group’s annual forum, held early February 2009 in Orlando, where—despite the curent global economic malaise—presenters focused on the longer term view of sustainable manufacturing and all its implications for the practice of industrial automation.

”Sustainability needs technology; it needs the proper regulatory framework; and it needs business buy-in,” Hecht added. “The challenge is to make sustainability operational.” The coming decade’s key drivers will be environmental impact, energy efficiency, material use, material waste and water use, Hecht said.

Indeed, reducing energy usage was a common theme of the forum’s sustainability presentations. BASF’s Franz-Josef Kersling, for example, discussed the multinational chemical manufacturer’s ongoing achievements in energy efficiency through heat integration, through automation of start-up and shutdown procedures, and through plant-wide optimization strategies.

“Sustainability is a lot more than saving energy,” added John Nesi, vice president of market development for Rockwell Automation, which promotes a broad definintion of “sustainable production” as cleaner, safer and more energy-efficient operations. “Sustainable production practices deliver economic value and serve the greater good,” Nesi explained. “They provide a long-term solution to volatile energy costs, scarce raw materials, expensive workers’ compensation, lost worker productivity and product liability costs.”

And, at Cisco Systems, sustainability is defined as “the ability to meet the needs of the present, while not compromising the needs of the future,” said Angel Mendez, senior vice president for value chain management. He went on to explain that Cisco’s deployment of collaborative technologies that reduce the need for travel and in-person meetings have been key to reducing the company’s carbon footprint. “Don’t just comply,” Mendez recommended. “Share your ideas—lead, influence and innovate.”

Other aspects Cisco considers in the context of its sustainability efforts include proper governance for ensuring internal and external alignment, a holistic view of manufacturing relative to the other functions of the organization, and an action plan melded with organizational metrics and process parameters to gauge progress.

Another forum presenter, ExxonMobil’s Bob Wang, took a particularly narrow look at sustainability from the perspective of advanced process control. The company has gained significant benefits from advanced process control and real-time optimization, Wang said, but sustaining those benefits runs smack into a number of obstacles, including the letdown in visibility when moving from the more glamorous project phase to maintenance, insufficient attention to the underlying instruments and analyzers, as well as demographic aspects, such as retirement of skilled workers and training of their successors.

“Key aspects of sustainment include technology, people and work processes,” Wang said. “And we’ve found sometimes it’s better to go with a less advanced technology that we know we can keep running.”

In the end, many constituencies are coming around to the realization that unsustainable practices increase business risk, added EPA’s Hecht. “Sustainability makes business sense as well as good policy. The public and investors will demand it; technology and science will make it happen.”

Perhaps. But in today’s economic climate, it seems most companies have their eye on simply surviving the next six or 18 months—achieving sustainability with a capital “S” may have to wait just a bit longer.   

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