Sustainability is an initiative increasingly essential to the core business model of many companies. There are many diverse perspectives on sustainability. Some companies consider it to be the burden of more government regulations, new compliance requirements and higher manufacturing costs. However, industry leading companies recognize that sustainability can actually be a business driver for next-generation products, more efficient operations and increased profitability. Many major manufacturing organizations now include the topic of sustainability on their websites, in their marketing literature and investor relation information -- recognizing its value to customers, consumers and the public at large.

The high-level commitment to sustainability is evident, but the success of these programs will be driven by the implementation details. A challenge for many manufacturers is determining where to focus sustainability efforts given global operations with varying geographical expectations. While there are many variations on sustainability programs, the core components of an effective sustainability program include:

  • Performance management of key sustainability information
  • Energy usage reduction
  • Raw material usage reduction
  • Product innovation and development.

Tools are available today that can help companies successfully drive implementation of sustainability programs and recognize the benefits of these efforts. This article examines how new software solutions can aid a company's efforts.

Performance Management of Key Sustainability Information

Data collection is a normal part of daily operations in most manufacturing locations. The challenge is not in collecting data, but in determining what data to collect, in what format, and with what frequency. Once data is collected, a decision must be made as to who will need access to the data and how it should be displayed. While most facilities collect a wealth of process data, it is how this data is managed and analyzed that converts the information into tangible benefits for the company.

It is relatively easy to collect an analog process value on a flow measurement at a distillation column. The information related to sustainability is typically not as straightforward. This is why many companies do not have this data available today in a usable form. Most sustainability metrics require not only measured values but calculations of varying complexities with multiple inputs and outputs.

Ideal sustainability monitoring includes the ability to collect and store large volumes of process data. Scalable calculation engines can provide the ability to build calculations without the need for complex programming languages, allowing users to collect basic data and calculate sustainability performance measurements within manufacturing locations and across the enterprise.

With these tools, sustainability information can then be viewed in a number of different ways depending on the needs of the specific end-user. For example, a corporate resource that monitors sustainability data from 20 locations across the world may prefer a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) graphic that simply provides a graphical alert if something requires action.

Measuring and Reducing Energy Usage

Reducing energy usage at an individual location can involve a variety of areas from steam usage to electrical efficiencies. Reducing energy usage across an organization may incorporate the entire supply chain and may include a much broader spectrum of functions such as transportation of raw materials and products, shutdown and turn-around scheduling, etc. There is not a single approach which addresses energy usage for all users, but finding flexible tools adaptable to specific company requirements is easier than it sounds.

For example, some tools can be used to facilitate the energy usage reduction efforts by giving users the capability to manage to an ideal profile. Unit startup is an example where tools like this can be utilized with regards to reducing energy costs. Energy costs can be high during startups, so establishing a preferred profile and then tracking performance to this profile can help identify areas to target for energy reduction opportunities. Because deviations from the profile are quickly identified, this also provides operations with the opportunity to make immediate adjustments to save energy throughout the remainder of the startup process.

Assigning production resources in a logical way that maximizes the effective use of operational equipment can also help reduce associated energy costs. Once a batch production run is complete, energy usage data can be included as a part of the cohesive batch record and further analyzed for future efficiency improvement opportunities.

There are many ways to approach energy reductions leveraging industry solutions. The power of batch record and analysis tools can be used both within batch and continuous processes to identify and help realize energy usage reduction opportunities. The reductions may not seem significant when viewed as an individual location and a single production run where you are saving a small amount of energy used. However, consider this as an on-going effort over the course of annual production campaigns and then expand it to all production facilities within an enterprise and the energy usage reductions can become quite significant.

Measuring and Reducing Raw Material Usage

In many ways, the efforts to reduce raw material usage parallel the energy usage reduction efforts outlined above. Raw materials include feed streams and additives that are used to make products as well as natural resources that are required as part of the process (e.g., water) but may not be a component of the final product. Improving production equipment efficiency is one way to reduce raw material usage.

Measuring and managing usage data via by profiling against operational limits as well as historical data can identify opportunities to more efficiently use valuable natural resources. Alerts can be generated when real-time opportunities to reduce raw material usage become available and can prompt operator action at the control system level. Alternately, once opportunities are identified via data analysis, advanced process control tools can be used to provide multi-variable control incorporating optimized raw material usage into the solution.

Tools that help identify opportunities for raw material usage reduction and provide enabling support for implementing key responses are critical to overall sustainability efforts. The ability of solutions to help users quickly identify issues, diagnose root causes and associate products with the specific raw materials and process equipment used to manufacture them can prove valuable as part of the overall sustainability program.

Product Innovation and Development

As companies begin to develop new products and alter existing products to reduce usage and waste, the agility of the entire manufacturing process must be improved. The ability to quickly adapt existing procedures and equipment to enable manufacturing of new and improved products is essential to maintaining competitiveness. Collecting and analyzing production information and comparing batch profiles as discussed in the sections above can be very valuable to both process engineers and product development teams as they assess new products and determine how they impact production.

A more unique application of production management and execution solutions as related to product innovation is efficiently handling the associated changes required in procedures and operating instructions. For example, a company determines that a new supplier can provide a single compound that takes the place of two compounds normally used in production, leading to a favorable environmental impact. Implementing this improvement may require changes to manual documents, modifications within multiple systems, and involvement by numerous resources with potentially limited availability.

Effective solutions provide a platform from which the changes required in the standard operating procedures and operating instructions as a result of changes associated with modified production can be handled with relative ease. This flexibility can help reduce the time needed to introduce new products and make production changes, meaning that sustainability gains are realized sooner. Technology of this nature can be an important part of manufacturing efforts to assess and produce new products helping companies deliver new products to customers as quickly as possible.

Conclusion

Sustainability is comprised of a complex combination of business and manufacturing initiatives that must be synchronized into a cohesive vision. There is no single, unified approach that will address sustainability for every company. Establishing an infrastructure that supports and enables sustainability objectives is critical to achieving success. The implementation of a performance management system that provides a mechanism for collecting, visualizing, analyzing and reporting key sustainability information such as carbon emissions and water usage is fundamental to this infrastructure.

However, it is important to recognize that production management and execution solutions are not only limited to the performance management aspect of sustainability, but also can provide benefits in other key areas. Finding a solution that can deliver sustainability benefits via energy profiling, resource management, batch genealogy tracking, and order management will enable the success of sustainability programs and ultimately determine how the strategic goals are converted to practical implementation plans utilizing available tools to achieve overall sustainability benefits.

Dan Roessler is chemicals industry manager -- PM&E Solutions with Aspen Technology.