Feeling The Burn

April 22, 2005
Customer demand, regulations and globalization prompt manufacturers to design more fuel-efficient products.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato is credited with saying, "Necessity is the mother of invention." More recently, U.S. Senator John Kerry has said, "You can't drill your way to energy independence. You must invent your way there."

Regardless of whether you agree with the entirety of the Massachusetts Democrat's statement, which he employs in his battle to prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, his words and Plato's both speak to a phenomenon already under way in the United States: The country's growing need to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels is driving invention.

Entire new industries have sprung up to meet burgeoning or anticipated demands for renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal. Manufacturers of traditional products have been challenged to bring that same energy mindset to their products, as well. With impetus provided by government, customer demand and global considerations, many are doing just that.

Government is fueling that innovation in part with tax incentives, federal regulations and public-private partnerships. Customers are fueling that innovation with their demands for greater energy efficiency. And many in corporate America, too, are fueling that innovation in their pursuit of corporate sustainability goals.

The following three examples illustrate how some traditional manufacturers are meeting the challenge to incorporate modern energy concerns in their products.

Oshkosh Truck Corp. Reduces Consumption, Emissions

Customers are a demanding lot.

"No matter what level of efficiency improvements you bring to the party, the customer is always looking for more," says Gary Schmiedel, vice president of advanced product engineering for Oshkosh Truck Corp., Oshkosh, Wis.

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Oshkosh, which manufactures specialty trucks and truck bodies for industries including defense, rescue, concrete placement and refuse collection, has a client base for whom energy matters. And its products demonstrate just that.

For example, Oshkosh recently announced the development of its third-generation design of its Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT) for the U.S. Army.

The military vehicle features a diesel-electric drive system known as ProPulse technology, which Oshkosh says improves fuel economy by at least 20% over a traditional drive train and up to 40% in some conditions.

The ProPulse system employs a series-hybrid architecture that simplifies transmission of power to the wheels. The diesel engine powers a generator that produces electricity to operate a traction motor for each axle. The ProPulse technology has an ability to generate AC power and its energy-storage capabilities.

The HEMTT A3 tactical defense vehicle from Oshkosh Truck Corp. features a diesel-electric drive system to improve fuel economy. It also allows the vehicle to export 200 kilowatts of AC power.The production-ready HEMTT A3, developed under a grant from the U.S. Defense Department, will undergo extensive performance and durability testing over the next 18 months.

However, it is not only for military vehicles that Oshkosh is developing its ProPulse technology. The manufacturer is 18 months into a program with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory that focuses on developing advanced heavy hybrid propulsion systems for heavy trucks such as those used in refuse collection, aimed at enhancing the fuel efficiency by a factor of two.

Also, Oshkosh has developed the Revolution concrete mixer drum. The Revolution drum, explains Schmiedel, is made from a composite that results in a drum that is 2,000 pounds lighter than a steel drum of the same size. Oshkosh, which also produces steel drums, says the lighter drum allows companies to increase their payload by 5%.

"That translates to fewer trips per day, fewer emissions and less fuel consumed," Schmiedel says. Additionally, the interior of the drum is more slippery than the interior of a steel drum, which he says means that less power is required to rotate the drum.

Oshkosh estimates the Revolution drum saves users $400 to $700 per year in fuel costs, estimating fuel at $2 per gallon.

The company says it customers are converting portions of their fleet to this technology, which has been available for slightly more than three years, although there remains plenty of call for its steel barrels as well.

The emissions issue, inextricably tied to fossil fuels, is as big an issue with Oshkosh's commercial customers as is the cost of fuel. Emissions standards for heavy trucks, "change often and significantly," with the next big step change due in 2007, Schmiedel says.

"Certainly if you burn less fuel, you inherently have a reduction in emissions," he notes.

About 70% of the tonnage required to support military operations is fuel "so anything that can be done to reduce the consumption of fuel on any platform . . . really helps out."

Oshkosh says it has been exploring hybrid electric components as far back as 1996. "We were seeing where we were going as far as the burden that the fuel consumption was placing on the military. We [also] saw the growth of power requirements on trucks."

Propulse technology dates back to a first prototype in 2001.

Deere & Co. Builds For Biofuels, Incorporates Better Materials

Deere & Co. has been incorporating renewable resources into its agricultural equipment for several years -- and for several reasons. The Moline, Ill.-based manufacturer's combines include components made with HarvestForm, a composite of corn and soybean resins. These renewable-resource composites replace petroleum-based plastics in the side shields, or "gull wings," of Deere's combines. The hoods of its four-wheel-drive tractors use the same composite.

To encourage the use of biofuels, Deere & Co. will use biodiesel as the preferred factory fill in diesel-propelled machines made in the United States.And in February, Deere announced that it would begin to use B2, a blend of 2% biodiesel fuel, as the preferred factory fill in diesel-propelled machines it makes in the United States. Biodiesel, a fuel made from any fat or vegetable oil such as soybean oil, can be blended with petroleum diesel to create a biodiesel blend.

Deere has a more vested interest than many in promoting the use of renewable resources. "It makes good sense to help our customers find new markets for their renewable resources," points out Deere spokesperson Barry E. Nelson. "It reduces our dependence on foreign oil, it helps with cleaner emissions and overall there are many benefits for the environment."

Deere's large tractors made at its assembly plant in Waterloo, Iowa, and combines produced in East Moline, Ill., already have begun using the B2 fuel, with the remaining factories scheduled to be on board by the end of the year.

"We also have a project to use e-diesel in farm equipment. This would be an ethanol/diesel fuel and primarily use corn for the production of ethanol."

Carrier Corp. Plans Globally

Our customers are becoming better informed and more sophisticated about what manufacturers provide, more demanding in the expectations of their systems," says Dan Williams, director of product strategy for commercial HVAC, Carrier Corp., a Farmington, Conn.-based manufacturer of heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems.

For Carrier, energy efficiency is a central component to all of its product designs; others include cost, sound, size and weight. And while there is a certain population of the commercial market for which cost remains the primary driver, everyone's sensitivity to energy efficiency appears to be increasing, he believes.

Commenting on the commercial HVAC side, Williams says a number of global developments likely will impact future product design. In Europe the company is seeing increased focus on a total building energy evaluation, a total system design. "It's more of a holistic approach rather than looking at efficiency levels at the individual equipment level," he explains.

And this year China is introducing minimum standards for commercial HVAC equipment, which should encourage development of energy-efficient equipment, Williams says.

What do the global market shifts suggest? Williams says the manufacturer is seeing a growing convergence in energy efficiency standards leading to a more uniform set of design requirements. That's good news for Carrier, which is dedicated to global product development, Williams says.

About the Author

Jill Jusko

Bio: Jill Jusko is executive editor for IndustryWeek. She has been writing about manufacturing operations leadership for more than 20 years. Her coverage spotlights companies that are in pursuit of world-class results in quality, productivity, cost and other benchmarks by implementing the latest continuous improvement and lean/Six-Sigma strategies. Jill also coordinates IndustryWeek’s Best Plants Awards Program, which annually salutes the leading manufacturing facilities in North America.

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