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Coming to Grips with Sustainability
by Josef Karbassi, Vice President Marketing and Communication
PIAB USA, Inc. Posted 11/18/2010
One of the biggest shifts in the manufacturing industry in recent years is the growing focus on sustainability. What started as a concern amongst a relatively small group has gathered force to become a key mainstream issue.
However, a rise of cynicism around ‘green washing’ within the consumer and business worlds alike means companies can no longer get away with claiming sustainable credentials for token efforts in only one area of their business. Instead, environmental considerations have spread from a focus on consumer-facing products to encompass all aspects of a manufacturer’s operations, requiring them to implement a robust, long-term strategy across their entire supply chain.
In addition to vital environmental benefits, companies have also realized that sustainability initiatives can have a positive impact on their bottom line by identifying areas where energy costs and waste can be reduced. The result is that more and more manufacturers are starting to see sustainability as a crucial business driver, and are taking a strategic approach to improving the environmental profile of their operations by developing and implementing their own sustainability policies. Manufacturers will be scrutinizing the practices of their suppliers, and looking to them to provide solutions that reduce waste and achieve energy reductions on their lines.
Vacuum technology is one area in the production process that manufacturers can focus on to make a meaningful difference to the environment. Below we explore three key considerations for manufacturers as they strive for supply chain sustainability.
Efficiency in Production
A reduction in energy usage and CO² emissions can help manufacturers achieve both sustainability and economic goals, so it’s no wonder that these form the core of most sustainability programs.
Vacuum technology is continually advancing. With new energy-efficient pumps and ejectors/generators constantly being introduced to the market, manufacturers are presented with various ways to reduce energy use. Ejector technologies that utilize the energy as efficiently as possible can help maximize efficiency. For example, COAX®-based vacuum ejectors can reduce energy consumption by 50 percent compared to traditional technology. In fact, since launching its COAX technology, Piab has contributed to energy savings across the consumer, food and automotive industries of approximately 64,000,000 kWh, which equates to the energy output of several thousand family homes per year.
Another technological advance which is improving energy efficiency in the use of vacuum technology is the incorporation of lighter materials into machinery. Exchanging metal for high-tech plastics in the construction of machines and robots, for example, means they can be reduced in size, and require less energy to operate.
Although it is relatively small, the suction cup itself can also pack a big punch in terms of energy savings. Suppliers seeking energy-efficient options should opt for cups that offer the highest levels of performance. Enhanced sealing capability, even on non-smooth surfaces, means less flow capacity is needed from the system to get a strong grip on handled objects. Suction cups built to more easily collapse and return allow smaller pumps to be used to complete the task, contributing to additional energy savings. High-quality cups also provide greater lifting power compared to conventional alternatives, meaning fewer cups are required and less energy is used.
In addition to new technologies, energy saving units present another useful tool for further optimizing energy consumption in a vacuum system. These optimizers allow the use of atmospheric air instead of compressed air to release a handled object. They also ensure the vacuum pump is only running when needed and switch it off when the required vacuum level for the application is reached. Energy waste can also be reduced by installing units that monitor pumps to ensure they run at optimal pressure.
Manufacturers also have choices when it comes to the set up and design of their vacuum system. Where centralized vacuum technology creates considerable pipe losses and transporting vacuum requires a lot of energy, manufacturers can choose to install a decentralized system as an energy-efficient alternative. Less transporting of vacuum is needed, lowering loss of vacuum through the pipe. Adding to this, smaller pumps and ejectors can be used with a decentralized system, requiring less energy consumption and producing significant savings. Manufacturers can also consider the use of cartridge integration systems, which allow integration closer to the point of use and further reduce flow losses.
Another way manufacturers can improve the sustainability of their operations is by partnering with suppliers that provide energy audits. A thorough assessment of existing vacuum systems as well as advice on possible improvements will allow manufacturers to gain a competitive advantage in what is an increasingly green business environment.
vonGAL, an Alabama-based company producing high-performance palletizing solutions, recently experienced the powerful energy savings that cutting-edge vacuum technology can provide when they successfully delivered a 34 percent reduction in energy consumption to a customer. The customer requested a robotic palletizing solution that was capable of handling recycled cases of various sizes and weights with a single end-of-arm tool, while adhering to strict compressed air consumption and energy usage guidelines. vonGAL’s answer to this challenge was the installation of Piab’s VGS™ (Vacuum Gripper System) 3010, which features a decentralized design that generates vacuum directly at the point of suction. The system is equipped with a Pi12-3 COAX cartridge allowing it to be run at very low pressure, and DURAFLEX® suction cups that lower energy consumption by preventing micro-leakage and allow the use of a smaller vacuum cartridge.
The system’s flexible design eliminates the need for multiple end-effectors when handling cases of different shapes and sizes, making changeover quick and easy, reducing downtime and allowing the customer to cost-effectively produce shorter runs of products to match consumers’ buying habits. A combination of increased efficiency and energy savings of more than a third compared to the previous system highlights why it is extremely beneficial for suppliers to be aware of the latest technological advances.
The disposal of waste is a key issue worldwide, and reducing the amount dumped into landfills is becoming more and more important. When it comes to selecting the consumables used in the manufacturing process, it is crucial for manufacturers to consider not only the product’s efficiency but also the impact it has on the environment once it is disposed of at the end of its lifecycle. The most thorough approach to waste reduction is for manufacturers to partner with suppliers that offer a combination of long-life, recyclability, and modular design formats.
The ability to recycle equipment and parts can play a large role in reducing production scrap. Therefore, there is a growing demand for suppliers to provide products that are manufactured from recyclable materials. Suction cups made from thermoplastic elastomers (TPE) can be 100 percent recyclable, depending on the material qualities chosen. Even the scrap created in the production of the cups can be re-used, reducing waste from further up the supply chain.
Longevity should also be a major consideration for manufacturers. Reducing the frequency by which a piece of equipment or part needs to be replaced ultimately creates less waste. For example the high-quality piGRIP™ and DURAFLEX® friction suction cups from Piab last two to four times longer than conventional cups, significantly reducing the number of times the parts need to be replaced. Vacuum pumps based on COAX technology also offer ways to reduce waste. They do not have any moving parts which means there is no wear and tear, in comparison to mechanical pumps where parts may need to be replaced from time to time, eliminating the need for disposal. In addition, no oil is needed to keep parts running efficiently, further reducing production waste.
Suctions cups that offer a modular design also provide a key tool for addressing sustainability as they allow partial component replacement. Industry leaders in vacuum technology are designing suction cups that allow the replacement of just the lip, which tends to suffer wear and tear more quickly, rather than the entire cup, further reducing waste.
Leading by Example
As manufacturers continue to focus on sustainability, the demand for ‘green’ suppliers is increasing. Suppliers need to focus internally on their in-house operations and consider their own environmental credentials. They need to make strategic changes within their organizations to align their product development processes with the sustainability goals of their clients.
To do this, factors such as CO² output from transportation and compliance with standards, namely the ISO 14001 certification for environmental management, will become more significant. The energy of component production should also be considered. The materials used play a big role here as the amount of energy required to produce the same components in different materials can vary enormously. For example, suction cups made of thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) require much less energy to be produced than traditional rubber versions, and have lower manufacturing costs. Add to that a better product consistency and greater flexibility of design, and TPE cups become the clear choice from environmental, economic and quality standpoints.
Ultimately, successful manufacturers will be those that recognize and embrace the move toward sustainability and who carefully select suppliers that are able to provide solutions that address key manufacturing challenges such as reducing energy usage in internal processes and minimizing waste. Partnering with ‘greener’ suppliers that offer sustainability support on both levels and are also sustainable themselves can help manufacturers achieve their environmental goals.