Lean Manufacturing's Unexpected Windfall

A Lower Carbon Footprint Often Comes Along for the Ride

By Paul Studebaker

ABB Automation & Power World 2013

"I usually talk about how lean manufacturing makes companies more profitable and gives them a competitive advantage," began Charles Cohon, CEO of Prime Devices Corp., in his presentation at ABB Automation & Power World this week in Orlando, Fla. "But today, let's talk about carbon footprint — the amount of electricity you use, the fossil fuel you burn, raw material utilization, water usage, sewer emissions — things like that."

Imagine your job is to lower carbon footprint. If you have many employees each driving to the plant, you might institute a carpooling program. A very successful carpooling program might reduce vehicles in half — a 50% reduction in commuting emissions. You might look at the building envelope and HVAC system, and make improvements that reduce natural gas consumption 20%. You could look at your lighting, ovens and fork lifts, and buy more efficient equipment, make operational improvements, or switch fuels to reduce their associated carbon footprints.

Now consider the effect of lean manufacturing. Striving to eliminate waste by reducing work-in-process (WIP) and streamlining production can improve sustainability and provide an unexpected windfall in the form of a lower carbon footprint.

This is not a new concept: "Consider the waste of over-production, for example," Cohon said, quoting Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System: "It is not an exaggeration to say that in a low-growth period such waste is a crime against society more than a business loss."

Cohon asserted that lean manufacturing can not only cut the carbon footprint of a plant or company, but also of an entire industry.

For example, when FNGP Seal & Gasket Co. transitioned from batch and queue processing to a lean, single-piece production flow, it reduced large inventories of incoming materials, WIP at each process step and finished product. Less warehousing and storage allowed the redesigned production area to shrink from 2,300 to 1,200 ft.², about 50%, while monthly production rose from 1,200 to 1,800 units. By reducing material handling and buying more efficient equipment, the workforce of 21 support and production people was reduced to three, a reduction of 84%.

Alone, those personnel and space requirements could reduce HVAC and lighting emissions by half and reduce the number of commuter miles by 84% — more on a per-unit-production basis and far more than typical conventional carbon reduction projects.

Lift truck emissions are eliminated, and quality requirements enforced by lean manufacturing result in less rework and scrap, further reducing the product's carbon footprint.

"But look," Cohon said. "We also see that we might easily and efficiently absorb our non-lean competitor's production and close his wasteful, dirty plant." If FNGP Seal & Gasket's competitor was like the old FNGP, the competitor's production could be performed at FNGP by two employees in 800 ft.², cutting the industry's carbon footprint by 19 more people, 1,500 ft.², and the accompanying energy, equipment and supply footprint. "It's simplistic, but someone is going to do it best," Cohon said. "If it's not you, then maybe your competitor.

"That dirty plant's emissions are now zero," Cohon said. "The last person turned off the lights."