Sustainability in Practice

What is sustainability really? There are philosophical, political, and practical aspects to sustainability. There is the mantra to reduce resource usage regardless of cost. There is the practical side to reduce usage solely watching costs. We believe both are correct. Mutually exclusive, yes, but correct depending on where you are as a company. Everything depends on what your company is able to do, desires to do, or needs to do.

We always have to acknowledge that the hundreds or thousands of jobs your company has created are the most vital resource of a company to be preserved and protected. Where we go after that depends on what you are working toward. Not every company can declare a 50% water consumption reduction, but many can. Many don’t know that they can and that it would save them money. Consumption may have room to be reduced but waste can be eliminated. Green energy may be a great step forward, but it may not make the best economic sense given alternatives that may prove just as good or better to for you economic and environmental impact. But no matter your next step, it has to be meaningful for you, your business, your company, and your purpose.

So what is sustainability to you? We can help you define it for YOU, for YOUR company. We can look at what is achievable with what investment of time and resources. But we have to define a little bit more first.

Step 1: Objective

What are we trying to accomplish short term, mid term, and long term? Just as importantly, why are we trying to accomplish it at all? Are the drivers economic, social, political, regulatory, or just good business? The reasons behind the motion are often more important than the motion itself. It sets the tone for the motion. Depending upon the driver, some action need to be taken faster than otherwise necessary.

For instance, regulatory drivers obviously put things in motion with defined requirements and timelines. Different drivers require different strategies. The motivation defines the strategy.

A moment for a story told in an engineering class many years ago. A metal smelting company fought tooth and nail against new emissions rules. Under court order, they finally spent many millions of dollars to install the necessary equipment. A few months after the installation, the equipment was not working correctly and the plant scheduled an outage to inspect it. Upon inspection they found the equipment literally lined with gold… and silver and other precious metals. It had plated out on the equipment but was easily peeled off. When it was peeled off there was more value than the project cost. That increased revenue stream kept coming and coming, completely unexpected but welcome.

Sometimes even regulatory drivers end up being economic advantages if a strategy for integration is in place.

Step 2: Strategy

We’ve now determined what sustainability is for your company. We have determined why you want to make a change. Now the technology and engineering side gets motivated, but how do we start? Where do we start?Your company is unique. It does things a certain way for a reason. You want to change that, which means sometimes we must tread softly. That last thing we want is to negatively change your product or branding. So we need to look at what the change will really do.Sometimes the technology side is easy. Change itself is often difficult. So a holistic approach is necessary. Are we going to start with an announcement of change to the impacted people or do we need to set up operator or maintenance personnel first? Once the training is completed, then an announcement of process changes will make more sense and may be better embraced. Are there other stakeholders that need to be in the strategizing of process changes?

So what does the strategy need to include? It needs to account for what makes you different. What is it that you do that makes you successful? Often the process changes never affect production, so these evaluations may not be pertinent. But what if you are trying to control wastewater production in your process? Is it process critical? These aspects have to be evaluated to make sure that product quality is not put at risk. Maybe the better approach is a more aggressive recovery program in this case. And so the evaluation must adjust.

Step 3: Process Evaluation

What is your process? Do you make garage doors or donuts? Do you make metal products or chemicals? Do you make engines or energy? This is where engineering belongs. We look at your process. We look for ways that the system can be improved, incrementally or in giant leaps. May ask why this wasn’t done when the place was first built. Often the answer is that this is the way it was done in those days. Those days may be 5 or 50 years ago.

Many processes are designed the way they are because it had been done that way before. It worked then, so no changes were made. No updates implemented. Many systems are designed as a series of boxes, stacked to create a product. Little time or energy is given to truly integrating the purpose of the system with its capabilities.

Many engineering firms don’t advertise innovation for very good reason. It is risky. Many engineering consulting firms have high turnover rates so there is no comfort factor with pushing engineering limits. The owner paying for a new system knows that starting up a new system is hard enough without new technologies or techniques being involved. So, the easier or simpler the process, the faster it can be started and make money. Who is to blame? No one! It wasn’t part of the objective.

Now it is.

Change happens.

We move forward. Cash flow from a process helps allow you to make upgrades and changes. That has value. So where do we look first? Step 4 often has the greatest impact.

Step 4: Water and Wastewater

Water! It supports life. It is vital for everything. It should always be protected. But from a business standpoint, water is normally pretty cheap making it difficult to justify processes and equipment that minimize its consumption. But the little costs add up. Sometimes sewer costs increase and offer savings opportunities. Discharge regulations often push the implementation of new technologies. Often water discharged from one process can feed another process. We look at the overall water balance. We look for reuse and recovery opportunities as well as conversion and elimination chances. We profile contamination and concentrations, pH, and temperature to look for integration, reuse, and recovery opportunities. Emissions can also be a reduction opportunity, so we go on to Step 5.

Step 5: Heating and Cooling

Just as in Step 4 we looked at the water balance, in Step 5 we holistically look at all of the areas that use heating or cooling in the process and buildings. Many opportunities often exist that can cross process conditions with facilities systems. One process’s cooling system can be another’s heating system. It is rare, if you own a cooling tower, for your process to not see significant improvement with integration. Air compressors, boiler, hydraulic oil coolers, air conditioners are all integratable systems.

For instance, most power plants always pride themselves on their heat rate, or the amount of fuel burned vs the amount of power generated. Most power plants can reduce water consumption by 3-7% easily without impacting production. Many can increase heat rate by several percent, worth millions of dollars. The key is finding the bigger picture with holistic analysis.

These same techniques can probably make a difference for you. What else can we improve upon?

Step 6: Chemicals and Treatment

The final piece of the puzzle that we primarily work with is chemicals, raw material, processes, and treatments used at your site. This comes last because, while often worth the most money, it takes the most work to understand the ins and outs od your process. Many new technologies can reduce or eliminate many chemicals.

Another aspect of this section is emissions. Do the chemicals you use go out in an effluent stream, an air stream, or maybe as solid waste? Either way, you own it from cradle to grave. If it doesn’t come out on site, if it is not needed, if it can be reduced or replaced, that cost of ownership can be reduced or eliminated.

Then there are the simple things to look at, the low hanging fruit. Bulk chemicals are much less expensive than small quantities. Pails and drums of chemicals are dangerous to move. What can change, and at what savings?

Once this microscopic site evaluation is complete we move to Step 7.

Step 7: With a Fish Eye Lens

We have looked up close at each process and resource use. Now we step back and look at the whole with a wide angle lens. Are there ways of moving things around to streamline processes and resources? Can different processes provide different resources for other processes? We take the information gathered, organized, and charted in the last several steps to see if there are good matches throughout your process for macro-integration.

With this perspective we also look to see if we’re going to be able to meet the expectation, goals, and objectives. We look to see what else has been done to get there. If necessary, we return to Steps 4-8 and increase the amount of infrastructure required to meet the objectives. Objectives give us goals. Now we have goals and a list of options, so we go to Step 8.

Step 8: A Path Forward

The evaluation of the processes has given a way to meet our goals of reducing resource use and costs. Your process makes you money. Interrupting the process costs even more money. Now we lay out how we are going to implement the changes with the least impact to you.

Even though customer communications occur throughout this process, this is a step that definitely requires a discussion of options, expected results, timelines, and costs. Once the path is agreed upon we can start implementation.

Step 9: Implementation

What is the plan? Are we training first? Are we working around the clock during a scheduled maintenance outage? Here is where we execute the detailed plan. Contractors are hired. Equipment is specified and purchased. Drawings are made. Site preparations are performed. Equipment is organized, verified, factory acceptance tests are verified, and procedures are created. Operators and maintenance employees are trained on the changes coming. Equipment is installed. Equipment is started. The process is now changed. Now we look in the mirror in Step 10.

Step 10: Achievement Evaluation

The process has changed. Now we look at the results of all the work performed. But before we jump to conclusions, we track the processes and make sure that we are in control and optimized. Are the systems doing what they should? Is more training needed? A report is generated on the entire process and the results. But the work of sustainability is not finished yet. Which brings us to Step 11…

Step 11: The Next Step Forward

When are we done? We’ve made changes. These changes have brought us closer to our corporate goals. We may have even accomplished all we set out for with the current objectives. Now we start all over again. We look at the corporate goals. We look at the current process status and start looking for more ways to keep travelling the path of continuous improvement, the path to sustainable operations and manufacturing.