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Sustainable photonics: A perspective

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2010
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 door.

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 biodegradable cleaners.

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 is product.

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 income.

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 usage.

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 or process.

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:

Tiny (less than 2 mm in diameter) lenses, beamsplitters and other optical components used, for example, in endoscopes or microscopes or to focus light from semiconductor lasers and optical fibers.
remote sensing
Technique that utilizes electromagnetic energy to detect and quantify information about an object that is not in contact with the sensing apparatus.
Air CompressorbiodegradablebiodieselBob CrasecoatingsCompressorConsumercooling systemenergyenergy consumptionforestrygreenGreen TeamGreenLightimagingindustrialInternational Organization for StandardizationISOJames Halllighitngmicro-opticsMicroscopymotoropticsphotovoltaicspower consumptionpumpPVremote sensingSix SigmasolarSolar Energysolar installationsubsystemsustainabilitysustainable farmingSustainable Manufacturingwaterwater purificationwind energy

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