The factory of the future will be environmentally correct.
As environmental awareness rises, manufacturers are stepping up their quest for greener factories, with reduced land waste, cleaner air and water emissions and less impact on surrounding communities.
It's going to get interesting.
How about a plan to bicycle to work? How about using factory wastewater to turn power-creating turbines?
"Everyone is trying to get their supply base moving in this direction," says Jim Laney, manager of environmental safety and health for Denso International America Inc. in Southfield, Mich. "It's not just us. Toyota is doing it. The Big 3 are doing it. It's becoming a priority for the whole industry."
But Denso stands out in its recent environmental commitments.
Last year, the supplier's Japanese parent company, Denso Corp. - the world's second-largest original-equipment supplier, with 19 plants in North America alone - unveiled a 10-year environmental plan called EcoVision 2015. EcoVision is taking a comprehensive approach to "greening" Denso and could become an industry benchmark over the next decade.
The Denso playbook
The playbook unfolds in four stages:
1. Laying out a management plan to direct and measure environmental improvements.
2. Reviewing the design and materials of the company's products with an eye to reducing their environmental impact.
3. Altering Denso's global manufacturing operations to reduce emissions.
4. Reviewing incidental practices and policies with the goal of lessening community impact.
There are big issues under study - how to reduce factory carbon dioxide volumes, for example, and how to use less water. But the plan is also drilling down into smaller areas of research.
Case in point: At Denso's large plant in Mexico, a pilot program is targeting the volume of employee lunchroom waste going into landfills. Food leftovers are instead being churned into worm farms - compost heaps, in other words - where they become landscaping soil. The soil is used on Denso properties and may be sold to local contractors as the program unfolds.
Denso engineers also have set up a very small hydroelectric generator using wastewater from a plant's industrial operations.
Few dispute the moral value of greening up. But heavy manufacturing is a dirty business by its nature, and without fat profit margins. Heavy capital investment makes process changes slow in coming.
As a result, environmental laws tend to be lenient on factories, as long as they operate within the guidelines that were in effect at the time that their environmental permits were issued. In other words, as long as there is no major new investment in the plant, there is no pressing need for a manufacturer to adopt new green practices.
Denso and others see it differently. They believe the auto industry will risk alienating the car-buying public if companies don't move aggressively to clean up their images.
One of Denso's Japanese plants is studying the idea of staggered start times for factory departments. The idea is to reduce the impact of hundreds of commuters driving to work at the same time or vying for the same public transit seats.
Also targeted for attention is the amount of energy Denso uses, Laney says.
"How much fossil fuel are we asking power companies to generate?" he asks. "How much driving are we asking our employees to do?"
And how can the company's managers cut back on the amount of business travel they do? "It might mean relying more on teleconferencing," Laney comments, just a few hours after returning from a two-day trip to the company's expanding plants near Knoxville, Tenn.
"We're an advanced automotive society," he says. "We've recognized that, as manufacturers, we have to reduce the impact that our products have on the environment and that we, ourselves, have as we create them."
The initiatives aren't hurting the company's bottom line. Denso posted global operating earnings of $717.4 million during the quarter ending June 30, up 16 percent from the same period a year ago. Global sales increased 13.6 percent to $7.40 billion. c
You may e-mail Lindsay Chappell at [email protected]