Sustainable Manufacturing: The Road Forward

It's not easy being green. Today, new model electronics hit the market faster than most users are ready to replace their current products. Although consumers may chafe at the brief life expectancies of their phones, toasters, or televisions, the lure of next-generation bells and whistles can be hard to resist.

Who among us who bought the iPad when it debuted didn't experience a twinge of envy when iPad newbies got to snatch up the 2.0 version with all its enhancements? And those Flip cameras we all had to have two years ago that have been all but eclipsed by video-enabled smart phones? Opting for one device that does the work of two is a no-brainer, but does the idea of all those discarded Flips ending up in a landfill make you wish there was a better way?

Sustainable Manufacturing

Engineers working to solve the problems of dwindling safe-disposal options and the drain on natural resources say there is, and it's called sustainable manufacturing. But despite their commitment and growing public awareness of the problems, says Professor I.S. Jawahir, a James F. Hardymon Chair in Manufacturing Systems at the University of Kentucky's Department of Mechanical Engineering, there remains one major stumbling block: "Engineers are great at developing sustainable products but haven't made a convincing business case."

Professor I.S. Jawahir.

Jawahir, who also is chair of ASME's Research Committee on Sustainable Products and Processes, says "Product planners need to show that high-quality products with all the sustainability attributes can be made more cheaply than those that are not." That's what economists, corporate leaders, and business people care about most, and the key is maximizing sustainability's full power, he says.

A notion that sprang from the Lean Manufacturing movement of the 1980s, sustainability began with the rallying cry "Reduce, Reduce, Reduce," says Jawahir. In the 1990s, "Recycle and Reuse" was added to the mantra, and green manufacturing was born. But that only got us so far, says Jawahir, who in 2006 gave sustainability its teeth by adding three more Rs: Recover (the usable materials), Redesign, and Remanufacture.

The result is an enlightened approach to product design that extends into the post-use stage, when materials recovered from the old product are redesigned and then remanufactured into the product's next generation. "People think of the lifecycle of a product as cradle to grave," says Jawahir. "But with sustainability, the lifecycle is cradle to cradle."

Improving Sustainability

The idea of creating a perpetual production loop in which a product can evolve through multiple lifecycles would certainly make a difference. But corporate reluctance to invest in sustainability often hampers engineers' abilities to make sustainability central to each phase of a product's life. "The elements of sustainability that are there are very small," says Jawahir. In fact, there as yet is no widely accepted definition as to what it actually is.

For now Jawahir says working engineers can continue to serve as sustainability ambassadors if they:

Keep learning: Educate yourself about what it is that makes different products sustainable. "Seek out continuing education classes, information on the web, talk to people," says Jawahir. "Bringing more professional training into the workplace can also help convince those reluctant to embrace new ideas."

Know what you're up against: "Sustainable products that seem successful in theory may not be in reality because of limitations that competition can impose," says Jawahir, who observes that the upfront investment in training or hiring may not seem cost-effective unless "you think long term beyond the product's usable life."

Collaborate: Competition and collaboration rarely go hand in hand, but many sustainability issues are too big for firms to tackle on their own. Jawahir, who in 2010 received a $1.5-million grant from the National Institute of Science and Technology to develop metrics for sustainable products and processes, says that is where universities can build bridges. "The grant required involves industry, so representatives of General Electric Aviation, Toyota, and Lexmark are all on my advisory board and working together," he says.

Be persistent: "The commitment to sustainable products has to be in the corporate culture from bottom to top," says Jawahir. So, to successfully pursue sustainable product design, engineers must find firms that share those values. Even when the commitment to sustainability is there, Jawahir warns there will still be roadblocks, particularly for younger engineers wishing to introduce sustainability concepts they've learned in university. "One single engineer can't make all the difference," he says.

Marion Hart is an independent writer.

Corporate reluctance to invest in sustainability often hampers engineers' abilities to make sustainability central to each phase of a product's life.

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