The Sustainability Grind

A growing swath of consumers who value economic, environmental and social responsibility are generating demand for sustainable products and practices. Manufacturers that don’t adapt risk losing market share.


February 11, 2017

By Steve Frandzel

Turn. Drill. Bore. Cut gear. Grind. Vapor degrease. Induction harden. Heat treat. Cadmium plate. Process complete.

That’s one possible sequence for turning a steel-alloy bar into a gear. It’s not glamorous or poetic; process flowcharts are not the stuff of dreams. Yet it’s here, in the elegantly rational trenches of industry, that Karl Haapala, an associate professor of manufacturing engineering, thrives and hones a better way to build things. Sustainable manufacturing balances social responsibility, economic competitiveness and environmental impact.

Karl Haapala (Photo: Chris Becerra)

“Manufacturing includes everything from minute processes to a complete supply chain, and I look at it all through a lens of sustainability, which accounts for a critical set of environmental, economic and social values,” says Haapala, who directs Oregon State’s Industrial Sustainability Lab. “It also considers the well-being of people — your workforce, your customers.”

The word “sustainable” can conjure notions of some remote and costly ideal, but Haapala says it is consistent with good practice. Most manufacturers already embrace basic sustainability, which comprises reduced energy, water and raw materials consumption; fewer worker injuries; less waste; and lower distribution and transportation costs. All of these factors translate into lower production costs and greater profitability. But he wonders why more companies don’t rush to take advantage of sustainable manufacturing.

“Business is motivated by profit, but companies that operate in a sustainable manner have greater longevity and perform better than average financially,” says Haapala. “Sustainable practices force companies to innovate, and innovation adds resiliency, as does reduced supply chain uncertainty that results from choosing more abundant materials over rarer ones. Why would you not manufacture in a sustainable manner?”

Good Business

The ethos of sustainable production is gaining steam with the public. Awareness of connections between threats like water scarcity, depletion of scarce resources and environmentally related disease too often trace back to unsustainable production patterns. According to Haapala, a growing swath of consumers who value economic, environmental and social responsibility are generating demand for sustainable products and practices. Manufacturers that don’t adapt risk losing market share.

Tempering Haapala’s sanguine view is what he considers ill-placed resistance or limited understanding of sustainable practices. “Over the past two years, I have interacted with about 30 small, medium and large companies to learn about their sustainable manufacturing activities,” he says. “One surprising finding has been how universally challenged companies are — small to large — in deciding how to do the right things right. They want to be business savvy and be good corporate citizens, but there are a lot of complexities they must navigate, which often results in ad hoc, uncertain qualitative decisions.”

To equip industry for a more definitive response, Haapala is creating comprehensive tools that enable manufacturers to quantify the impact of sustainable manufacturing alternatives. In one seminal study conducted for a large aerospace company, he and graduate student Michael Eastwood applied mathematical models to compare three different ways to produce a hypothetical bevel gear. They evaluated energy consumption, material choices, water use, effluent discharge and occupational health and safety, among other factors. “We set out to develop an assessment tool that holistically considers inputs to the design and production process, something not previously available for industry,” Haapala says.

Refinements are needed before the tool becomes a practical, automated application. That’s the goal of ongoing research by Haapala in a project supported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “One ray of sunshine was that engineers at the company changed the way they thought about problems,” he adds. “I believe this helped them to see the value of looking at things from a sustainability-performance perspective rather than just a cost-performance perspective. It made them think about the secondary implications of decisions. That, to me, is progress.”

Work like this exemplifies not only Haapala’s vision for responsible manufacturing, but also his place astride the intersection of academia and industry. Almost half of the 39 projects that Haapala has participated in since 2009, his first year at OSU, have been industry collaborations. Partners have ranged from startups and small concerns to large corporations. Last fall, Haapala received Oregon State’s Industry Partnering Award (accompanied by a $10,000 grant), which “recognizes a faculty member who achieves extraordinarily high impact innovations through research collaborations with industry.”

Public- and industry-sponsored research frequently differ in important ways, Haapala notes. “In academic research, you don’t always have a destination in mind, and the path to get wherever you’re going may not be very clear. There’s more flexibility and uncertainty in developing new knowledge.”

Working with industry can entail frequent consultation in shaping the trajectory of the project, he adds. “Often a business needs a quick solution, and there’s usually some definite end goal. At the end of the day, you have to put theory into practice. That’s the nature of industry research.”

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