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Sunday, 09 December 2012 23:42

Western Michigan University initiative translates research into savings

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Western Michigan University initiative translates research into savings MIBIZ FILE PHOTO: Jeff Hage
KALAMAZOO — Managers at busy manufacturing companies have to find a balance between the work they need to do to get product out the door every day and the work they should do to ensure their operations are running efficiently.

For many, sustainable manufacturing practices often fall into the latter category.

The dumpster dives, energy audits and materials analysis provide useful, actionable information, but spending time and resources on those initiatives does little to serve a company’s immediate needs.

“Philosophically, your green heart tells you these are the things you should be doing,” said Becky Fulgoni, executive vice president for people and operations at Landscape Forms Inc. “But it’s really hard sometimes to commit the resources to doing them because you don’t necessarily see the impact in the shipments that go out the door today.”

Realizing that, the Kalamazoo-based landscape furnishings manufacturer turned to a group of engineering students and professors at Western Michigan University for help. The team, part of the university’s Green Manufacturing Initiative, went on-site with Landscape Forms’ employees to work on select sustainability initiatives that have had “really major impacts” on the company’s bottom line.

“It’s like having this auxiliary, back-up engineering team to do all things that you want to do and know you can do — and know you can get good payout from — but that you just don’t get to,” Fulgoni said.

The GMI team helped the company develop a sorting and numbering system to help it pick the optimal piece of wood for the particular cut it had to make for a given product design, thereby eliminating scrap.

“Instead of just pulling randomly what the next piece of wood was, we have a system now that we ask for the size (of wood) that makes the most sense for that particular design,” she said.

Implementing the system resulted in a savings of more than $200,000, on top of thousands of dollars the company also saved from changing over its one large air compressor to two smaller, more efficient models, she said.

WMU Professor John Patten spearheaded the creation of the Green Manufacturing Industrial Consortium, an idea he started cultivating in 2003 when he first arrived at the university. It wasn’t until 2009 that the university received a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy to start the Green Manufacturing Initiative with the goal of using university research to support sustainable efforts within companies across the region.

That initial funding spawned the creation of the Green Manufacturers Industrial Consortium, a dues-based organization that brought together member companies from a range of industries in Southwest Michigan and northern Indiana.

Currently, the consortium has five members — Landscape Forms, Fabri-Kal, Post Foods, Poly-Wood Inc. of Syracuse, Ind., and Steelcase Inc. — and focuses its efforts on materials issues and energy.

Battle Creek-based automotive supplier DENSO International America Inc. is not a full member of the consortium, but the company did make a contribution to the group and WMU is working on a project there, Patten said.

The federal funding for the initiative runs out at the end of the year, but the program hopes to keep alive the Green Manufacturing Consortium through its membership fees.

The consortium hoped to secure commitments from a total of six companies by the end of the year. By reaching six full-time members plus a pool of four other potential members, the group should be able to carry on beyond its initial funding period, Patten said.

“That’s the magic number that’s sustainable,” he said.

The program launched in 2009 while the recession still held a firm grip on the manufacturing community. While companies understood the value of the service, Patten said some of the founding members sat tight before committing to the group.

“The timing is never perfect, but the companies we were working with were doing reasonably well,” he said. “There’s not much in the way of having to convince them that this is a good idea. It’s about finding the right champion within the organization that can get it approved and get the process going or approve it themselves.”

Annual memberships in the GMIC cost $25,000.

The executive team at Landscape Forms saw the membership as the right investment to make, Fulgoni said. Their reasoning was twofold. Not only did it focus the company on the sustainability efforts it wanted to do all along and provide the accountability to drive the implementation process, but also the membership signaled to Landscape Forms’ customers that the company was committed to being a leader in sustainability.

“Leaders do things like this. Leaders set the bar where it should be, or where it’s possible to be,” Fulgoni said. “We think of ourselves as leaders in all things that we do, and sustainability is very important to us. To have a group in Southwest Michigan that’s doing this kind of work, as a member of that community, we have to support that effort.”

“It’s very interesting to me that aren’t other companies that are taking advantage of it because it’s a pretty good deal for $25,000,” she said.

The consortium focuses on what Fulgoni describes as “precompetitive issues,” those common issues the diverse members faced in their own companies even though they operated in sometimes dramatically different industrial sectors.

“When you think about a furniture manufacturer and cereal maker, what could they possibly have in common? Well, we both run really big ovens. They cook cereal in theirs, and we cure paint in ours. But the environmental issues that come from running big ovens are the same,” Fulgoni said. “As a group, we can commit some of our group resources to projects that have to do with running big ovens.”

The members all share in the fruits of that research, but if a member sees a way to apply the research to the next level, it can work separately with the WMU team to develop the idea, she said.

The “little green guys,” as Fulgoni calls them because they wear green GMI shirts, work with each member company on an assessment and help identify a project to implement a green manufacturing program.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” said Dave Meade, associate director of the consortium.

Another common issue for some of the member companies is identifying a way to usefully recycle waste powder paint, an issue that has for years plagued manufacturers in the furniture and automotive industries.

“With waste powder paint, we’ve got a lot of oars in the water there,” Patten said. “I suspect that research will continue after GMI funding. We’ve got two faculty that are pretty well-versed in that, and we’re working with our students and our staff to identify future sources of funding. The preliminary research they do, hopefully they’ll be able to convert that into a proposal … to get some industry funding or federal government funding.”

As the consortium continues the search for additional members — Meade and Patten say they have a couple of prospects they hope to secure commitments from by the end of the year — it’s turned to its member companies to have the results sell the value of the membership.

“For me, it just seems like a no-brainer. The money isn’t huge,” Fulgoni said. “Having the little green guys come and keep us on track with this stuff is perfect. And to have the project save us $200,000 — where’s the downside?”

Read 2178 times Last modified on Sunday, 09 December 2012 14:30
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