Courtesy of ABB

Local Leadership Guides Worldwide Plant Sustainability at ABB

April 18, 2024
Centrally-guided sustainability initiatives generate less excitement, deliver results more slowly than employee-led efforts.

If employees express concern over what their company does to protect the environment, try putting them in the sustainability driver’s seat and watch what happens.

ABB operates in four business areas, electrification, robotics, process automation and motion and drives. The company’s environmental and social governance (ESG) policy breaks down into three pillars: enabling a low carbon society, preserving resources and promoting social progress. Fabio Mercurio, Head of Global Strategy for Smart Buildings works within the electrification division and focuses on low carbon emission goals.

The “Mission to Zero” sustainability pledge that Mercurio’s group promotes grew from grassroots efforts in 2019 in a plant in Ludenscheid, Germany, part of Mercurio’s division, that produces electrical switches and sockets. Line workers, with support from plant management, installed EV chargers, solar panels and battery storage. They then customized the plant’s automation controls to serve as a de facto smart energy management system.

The Lüdenscheid plant’s efforts decreased annual CO2 emissions by 750 tons (the equivalent of the annual emissions of 179 gas-powered passenger vehicles, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), and as word spread, spurred emulation at other plants around the company. ABB then created the formal Mission to Zero initiative and Mercurio joined the company to help define it.

Leaders Listen to the Loraxes

Pundits preach the value of enacting ESG policy to attract talent and motivate employees. Younger generations of workers, goes the argument, care deeply about sustainability and how their companies approach the problem. In Mercurio’s experience, this seems true. ABB created the formal Mission to Zero program after witnessing how successful sustainability efforts motivated employees.

“They’re very passionate about the topic. Once they realize that there is a seriousness [from the company] on the topic, they’re also more attracted [to the company] and they come to work with a different attitude, a much more positive attitude,” says Mercurio.

ABB’s sustainability initiative reflects modern manufacturing management practices like Toyota’s management system, Lean and Six Sigma, giving employees a reason to pay attention to processes and details, listening, and enabling them to influence their work in ways that feel meaningful to them.

Arresting climate change isn’t as tangible a result as cost savings from reducing energy consumption or decreasing risk from cutting oil and gas dependencies.  Still, Mercurio believes manufacturing executives today understand the value of sustainability initiatives from both approaches.

“It’s much easier to take the conversation from the sustainability and energy angle because there is a clear benefit in terms of reducing risk, improving the economics and linking it to something tangible. When you look at climate change, this is perceived as a tangible outcome. On the social side, while recognizing the importance on the topic it’s more difficult to create something tangible,” Mercurio says.

“In my view, if a manager goes to an executive and says ‘Listen, I want to deploy initiatives that help me to reduce the energy consumption, reduce the CO2, reduce the risk on oil and gas,’ especially if you’re in Europe have a dependency on some tricky country, ‘And, that will also help the journey on the CO2 emissions and improve the climate change,’ I think there is enough awareness in the executive circle to take that seriously,” he adds.

Be Coaches, Not Commanders

Plants must use at least one of ABB’s sustainability products to join the Mission to Zero program. It’s a way for the company to walk the talk, but ABB can’t provide all the solutions plants need to successfully decarbonize.

“Many of these solutions are not produced by ABB … especially the energy generation, [a] popular and massive way to reduce [environmental] impact. We [don’t produce solar technology] for example … so all of that comes from partners. There is an element of ABB technology, especially on the software usually, but most of the components, most of the CapEx, most of the investment goes elsewhere,” Mercurio says.

ABB takes lessons learned from individual plants, including available technologies either internally or through established partnerships and builds a sustainability blueprint to provide guidance for plants. Central leadership does not provide mandates as to what specific technologies and strategies plants must employ, however.

“Every plant, every factory, it’s a unique set of solutions, spaces, local conditions, right? We need to be very, very careful [about mandating specific requirements]. … so it’s very difficult to have a blueprint and replicate it at scale,” Mercurio says.

Even if it were possible to set strict guidelines, the Mission to Zero initiative stresses the value of local empowerment. Getting in the way of that spirit would only weaken the program, he adds.

When a plant wants to earn the Mission to Zero label, Mercurio’s team conducts a quick assessment as to whether the right conditions exist. If the parameters seem correct, Mercurio’s team of experts, what he calls a “center of expertise,” uses the blueprint to educate plant employees about the opportunities and pitfalls of certain sustainability technologies.

Mercurio does not send a guru to advise the plant in person, however, because they would probably just get in the way.  A plant in Belgium that’s new to the Mission to Zero program first adopted standard technologies like smart energy monitoring software, EV chargers and solar power. The plant also improved machine optimization, adjusted air ventilation, optimized the water circuit and installed energy efficient lighting among other changes, opportunities an outsider wouldn’t recognize quickly.

Each plant that joins Mission to Zero generates knowledge that feeds back into the blueprint developed by Mercurio’s team, who then leverages the information to inform ABB’s technology research and development and provide guidance for customers employing ABB sustainability solutions.

Slow but Sure Sustainability

There’s a downside to surrendering sustainability initiatives to local plant leadership rather than driving change from the center, like the inability to set and enforce goals. And only 14 of ABB’s 177 manufacturing sites worldwide have received Mission to Zero certification. ABB’s sustainability plan includes but is not dependent on independent action taken by the plants, however.

The company committed by 2030 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 80%, an effort also based on three pillars: Electrifying its entire vehicle fleet, sourcing 100% of its energy from renewable sources and improving energy efficiency and productivity across operations with programs like but not limited to Mission to Zero.

ABB conducts ongoing assessments for all its plants to assess where specific sustainability technologies and strategies could yield the greatest success. Given the way it’s organically spread since the Lüdenscheid plant made its first successes in 2019, Mercurio expects Mission to Zero will get to all the plants eventually, anyway.

“Back then [at Lüdenscheid] the management allowed them to be creative and take the lead on such an initiative. Nobody had ‘sustainability’ in their title. We’re talking about production managers, people motivated by a bigger goal. … Then it started to spread inside the organization. People were talking about that site, then you know how it goes. When you have something very valuable, there was emulation,” Mercurio says.

“And that’s when I joined as well. [My] division decided to [create] this program and make it more visible in the organization and since then you have, [springing up] like mushrooms all over the world, employees motivated by the same principles are triggering more missions at their sites.”

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