Ford Motor Co. is starting at the bottom in its efforts to become more environmentally friendly - the bottom of the wheel well.
Ford plans to recycle plastic containers used to ship transmission extensions made in China into splash shields for its light-duty trucks. The transmission extensions - which weigh 8.5 pounds - attach to the automatic transmission casing on Ford's F-150 four-wheel-drive pickups.
The recycling program will begin in late September.
Ford says the program not only will save the automaker money but will streamline its shipping and solve a rust problem caused by using cardboard containers.
"We kind of started with the end in mind," says David Shepps of Ford's material, planning and logistics unit.
Ford won't say how much it hopes to save, other than it expects to reduce shipping costs by 34 percent annually over what's expected to be a five-year project.
Ford also would not reveal startup costs.
Using cardboard containers to ship the transmission extensions triggered rust from fibers and dust on a small knob on the part.
"We did not want to see rust happen during the very long journey these parts take from China," Shepps says.
"That's a real concern for powertrain products. This type of solution is really important for powertrain parts that are sensitive to cardboard contamination."
Getting the part from China also was cumbersome because it had to be repacked before it reached Ford's transmission plant in Livonia, Mich.
Each new plastic container holds 100 transmission extensions. That is 20 more than the cardboard ones.
By substituting plastic for cardboard, Ford does not have to repackage the parts after they arrive from China, which eliminates what the company calls a "wasted motion." Shepps says this lessens the chance that parts could be damaged during the extra step.
While the containers are different, the voyage the extensions take to reach the Livonia transmission plant will remain basically unchanged. They travel from China by boat to Long Beach, Calif. Then they are shipped to the Detroit area via rail. The total trip takes about 34 days.
Ford says its plastic containers will be easier for workers to unload. The walls are detachable. And after the part is unloaded, the packaging will be knocked flat and shredded. After shredding, the containers will be melted and formed into splash shields at Ford's Maumee Stamping Plant in Maumee, Ohio.
Ford says a decision has not been made on where the containers will be shredded.
In addition to trying to solve shipping and environmental problems, Shepps says Ford had to devise a way to create material that could be turned into splash shields, which on average weigh slightly more than 3 pounds.
"We had to do some very vigorous testing," he says.
After developing the recycling process, Ford enlisted students from the Georgia Institute of Technology to analyze what effects it could have on the environment. The automaker and university are developing a system that can be used with other powertrain parts. Eventually, the process could be applied for other automotive parts.
Ford has at least one patent pending for the process of designing and building packaging that can be reused as auto parts.
Sourcing parts from emerging markets such as China could become more prevalent, and transportation costs could rise, which makes finding a workable system crucial, according to Leon McGinnis, professor at Georgia Tech's industrial and systems engineering school.
"That's an interesting problem because it's so complex," McGinnis says. "We have to figure out a way to do it that doesn't generate a lot of waste"
McGinnis guided Georgia Tech students as a faculty team member.
In January, students from the University of Michigan also did a study testing ergonomics of the containers.
John Cristiano, adjunct assistant professor at the university's industrial and operations engineering department, says the students made several design recommendations that were incorporated into the final project.