In April, the U.S. Department of Energy put a spotlight on Nissan Motor Co.'s new energy-efficient paint plant in Smyrna, Tenn. Opened in January, the 250,000-square-foot facility is located adjacent to the automotive company's existing vehicle assembly plant and is described by Nissan (IW 1000/26) as its most advanced paint plant in the world.

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The facility bristles with technologies designed to drive down energy use, including a new "3 wet" paint process that eliminates a high-temperature bake step; a compact spray booth design that requires less air supply and smaller exhaust systems (less electricity needed); and smaller natural gas hot water generators that service individual processes. They pull only the power needed when it is needed.

The new paint plant is Nissan North America's showcase project in the DOE's Better Buildings, Better Plants Challenge. The challenge, launched in December 2011, aims to help U.S. commercial and industrial buildings get at least 20% more efficient over the next decade. 

Nissan has committed to reducing energy use in its three U.S. plants 25% by 2020.

Newly released data suggest manufacturing's energy-efficiency measures are making an impact. Total energy consumption in manufacturing declined by 17% from 2002 to 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, manufacturing gross output declined by just 3% in the same period. The significant drop in energy intensity was driven by energy-efficiency efforts as well as changes in manufacturing outputs, the statistics agency opines.

In its first month of operations, Nissan's new paint plant -- a multimillion-dolalr project -- was delivering a 30% reduction in total energy use for body-on-frame painting, according to the DOE.

Conservation Without Capital

Capital-intensive projects are not the only route to better energy management, says Jerry Thompson, senior vice president of customer solutions for Management Alternatives Ltd. His firm promotes the idea that manufacturers can find significant improvements in energy management (as well as associated cost savings) with little to no high-dollar inputs. 

"Even in very good companies, they have inefficient practices," he says. Such practices can range from needlessly operating machinery, failing to optimize the equipment or performing tasks in the wrong sequence to making questionable decisions, such as using compressed air to clean the shop floor. 

"You can have the best capital equipment and the best compressors in the business, but if you are misusing them in the manufacturing process, then what do you have?" he asks rhetorically. 

Indeed, Mike Hugdahl, plant manager at Ingredion's Bedford Park, Ill., manufacturing facility, said leadership "was a little surprised at the amount of opportunity" Management Alternatives uncovered during an engagement there in 2009.