Green Manufacturing: One Big Step Towards a Circular Economy

By Dr. Nurul Bahan (School of Materials and Mineral Resources Engineering)

October 2021 VOICES OF USM
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GREEN MANUFACTURING... What is that? Well, as one might easily guess, it is about “greening” the manufacturing system. And one does that by reducing the use of energy and natural resources; cutting down on waste, pollution and emissions; and recycling and reusing materials. A switch to a solar-powered energy source, for example, is one of the most economical ways to go green.

More and more established manufacturers are “greening” their activities by adopting practices and technologies to lessen their impact on the environment. In 2020, McDonald’s topped the list of 17 companies to embrace the green movement, according to Conserve Energy Future. With the use of energy-efficient appliances, the fast-food chain managed to reduce its overall energy consumption by 25%. Their restaurants in the U.S. have also installed green parking lots for hybrid vehicles. These are set on permeable concrete floors with the capability of recharging the vehicles and cleaning groundwater. Capital investment is obviously needed but these examples show that we are limited only by our imagination.

Dell, a leading manufacturer of computer equipment, came second in the list. To promote safe disposal of its products and reduce overall e-waste count, the company encourages consumers to return damaged equipment. It even accepts computers, printers and monitors of other makes.

To promote safe disposal of its products and reduce overall e-waste count, Dell encourages consumers to return damaged equipment.

Honda sits at No. 4 and has invested huge sums into producing fuel-efficient vehicles. It is currently conducting R&D into the development of a hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle. Toyota, at 10 spots below, also shares similar aspirations in reducing its overall carbon footprint. In fact, its Prius model is the world’s first mass-market hybrid vehicle.

Going green also means reducing the use of raw materials. The American aerospace company Pratt & Whitney has cut back 90% of its ingots in the manufacturing of jet engine blades, and has also significantly reduced its factory emissions. This practice though, is slightly more difficult to adopt; it requires many rounds of design improvements and the development of new materials.

Another example is the food company General Mills (the U.S.), which has been recycling its solid waste as early as in 2006, when the company discovered beneficial uses for its by-products; for example, oats hulls, a by-product of the cereal brand Cheerios, is now used for fuel.1 In 2006 alone, the company recycled 86% of its solid waste.

Total energy consumption involves myriad factors. The carbon footprint of a product is in fact evaluated from when raw materials were first extracted from nature, to transportation to the factory where it is processed into the finished product. Even the product’s packaging has to be considered – a lighter package design saves on fuel consumption.

Therefore, a conscious selection of raw materials can lower the carbon footprint. But are these materials able to perform just as well? Research into that has meant that the development of lightweight materials has gained more importance of late. Lighter aluminium alloys are now used in place of steel in cars, polymer composites are used in airplanes.

Producing wisely, consuming wisely and wasting wisely is the mantra for the future, and it is encouraging that some major companies are realising that greening their manufacturing process will keep them relevant in the future.

  • Manufacturing Trends and News, December 2013.
Dr. Nurul Bahan (School of Materials and Mineral Resources Engineering)