Bob Crase, Sustainable Manufacturing Consultant
The photonics industry is involved in nearly every facet of a sustainable future. Photonics
technology is at the heart of solar energy and remote sensing. Photonic devices
are used in biodiesel production, water purification, wind energy (through wear-resistant
coatings), energy-efficient lighting, sustainable farming and forestry (through
remote sensing), and many other applications.
So how do photonics companies successfully implement sustainable
practices? As Jim noted, they must make sustainable practices part of their overall
strategy and treat the implementation of sustainable practices as they would an
ISO (International Organization for Standardization) or Six Sigma program. They
must start with a desire to become sustainable. Once the desire is there, someone
to “champion” the cause is essential – for example, a dedicated
program manager can be enlisted to coordinate the process.
It’s important that the program manager think about the
company as a complete system to allow the use of “systems thinking”
in the implementation of sustainable practices because a change to any part will
affect the entire system. In every company, the interaction of the subsystems will
be different, and so the implementation will be different.
There are some common myths about sustainable manufacturing that
are pervasive in manufacturing industries, not just in photonics companies. The
most common is that sustainable practices are too expensive and will raise the cost
of manufacturing. The second is that sustainable practices are too difficult and
time-consuming to implement.
Both notions are far from the truth. In reality, implementing
sustainable practices can be inexpensive and often will reduce the cost of manufacturing
going forward. They also are not difficult to implement.
Reduce power consumption
As one might guess, the most common and sensible sustainable practice
is to turn off equipment when not in use. This is usually done with office computers
and equipment. Surprisingly, many companies do not take this practice past the front
office. Are there computers, printers and copiers that do not need to be left on
at night and on weekends? Is there idle capacity that is not only idle but unused?
Is there equipment running “just because,” not because it is being used
to make product? Motors, pumps, cooling systems and gauges not in use or really
necessary can consume large amounts of power, translating into money going out the
Perform an energy audit
Most local utilities will perform an energy audit at no cost or
obligation to a company. The audit team will look at the company’s usage of
energy and equipment and will make recommendations on how to reduce energy consumption.
One company that I work with had an energy audit that turned up a 30-year-old air
compressor. The cost to replace the compressor, $40,000, was beyond the company’s
budget. But for replacing it, the company was eligible for a $25,000 rebate from
the power company, and the new one would save $20,000 in electrical costs annually
– a payback period of only nine months.
Look at every subsystem
Moving the company to sustainable purchasing practices can be
a powerful lever. A company policy stating that all paper products must contain
a certain level of recycled material is a simple sustainable practice. Pens, pencils,
printer cartridges and a host of other office supplies are now made from either
recycled or recyclable materials. Instruct vendors that your company will no longer
accept Styrofoam as a packing material. Purchase only the biodegradable Styrofoam-alternative
packaging material. Work with your janitorial staff or service to use only nontoxic
Shipping is another area where there can be many opportunities
to implement sustainable practices. Many cardboard boxes used to ship products to
a company arrive in good condition but often are disposed of in a recycling bin.
Have your shipping department remove the old labels and use these boxes to ship
product from your company. Reusing a shipping box will not sully your company’s
quality image. If there is a concern, add a statement on the box or on the shipping
label that states that you reuse shipping boxes as part of your green practices.
Are there other areas where reusable shipping containers can be
used? Look at long-term supply agreements where the same product is shipped every
month. Arrange with the customer or vendor to use reusable containers. See if customers
will agree to less frequent shipments of larger quantities. A weekly shipment that
is changed to a biweekly one can cut costs nearly in half.
Evaluate waste streams
Is your waste stream really “waste”? Remember the
old adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”?
The statement is as true today as it was years ago. Look at your waste as if it
Another of my friends owns a sheet metal shop, with a long-term
contract to supply candleholders. While punching out each holder, a variety of shapes
– stars, hearts, crescent moons and clovers – are left behind as scrap.
He had barrels of these shapes, which he was selling by the pound as scrap metal.
I suggested he look for a supplier to the arts and crafts market who would distribute
this “scrap.” He now has a revenue stream worth 60 percent of his candleholder
Not every company will be in this situation, but it is worth investigating.
Is there glass scrap that can be sold to a micro-optics manufacturer? Is there product
that does not meet specification that can be sold into a secondary market? Is there
any other way to reduce waste?
Think outside the box
The waste stream most commonly overlooked is water. With the exception
of a recirculating cooling tower, most water is used once and then goes down the
drain to the treatment plant. Can this water be reused? The “dirty”
water produced in some processes may be cleaner than tap water. Does it make sense
to run some of the dirty deionized water back through the deionizing process? Can
the waste water be plumbed to the cooling tower and used as a portion of the makeup
water? Many local water agencies offer rebates for sustained reductions in water
Generate your own power. Granted, this is way out of the box,
but it may be possible. Most businesses have a parking lot for motor vehicles. Some
manufacturing plants also have large amounts of empty roof space. The cost of installing
a solar farm on either of these sites may be beyond the reach of most companies.
However, it may be possible to partner with a solar company or your local utility
under a power-purchase agreement. The partner funds and owns the solar installation
that is placed on the company’s property. The company agrees to purchase power
at a fixed rate for an extended period. The partner sells any excess power to other
customers. Similar agreements are available for wind power installations.
Let everyone know
Once your company starts down the sustainable path, don’t
be shy – publicize it. Many companies want to hide the fact that they are
moving toward sustainability. They fear that it will put them under the microscope.
They also may fear that the announcement will be met with negative publicity, including
touting how they are destroying the environment because of what they manufacture
Although this does happen on occasion, it is a rare occurrence.
Many large companies – perhaps potential customers for you – have mandates
to work with vendors who employ sustainable practices. Many prospective employees
would rather work for a sustainable company. Communities want to have businesses
that employ sustainable practices. Tell your employees, tell your vendors, tell
your customers, tell your community. The goodwill generated from sustainability
can be a very valuable public relations effort.
Continue the process
After you have completed the initial round of improvements, don’t
stop. As with ISO and Six Sigma, sustainability is an evolving process. Continuous
improvements in sustainable practices will yield more cost savings, increase employee
morale and generate goodwill for your business and community.
Meet the author
Bob Crase has worked in the photonics industry for more than 25
years. He has a master’s in business administration from Loyola Marymount
University in Los Angeles and holds a certificate in sustainable enterprise management
from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.