Anthony Ku, chemical engineer at General Electric (GE) Global Research, discussed possible approaches to closing gaps between knowledge and action in sustainable manufacturing. From Dr. Ku’s perspective, while sustainability metrics and indicators used by companies have advanced, data would best stimulate action if the dots were connected between strategic activity taking place at the higher levels of enterprise (e.g., global and corporate administration) and the operational activities and decisions occurring at lower levels (e.g., individual products, processes, and manufacturing plants).
Dr. Ku discussed the importance of improving data quality in terms of accuracy, precision, frequency, and accessibility. In his research, Dr. Ku investigated the impacts of helium shortages on company activities, production, and profits. While the data was expected to suggest that helium shortages would negatively affect GE’s health care business, the data instead discovered that many other GE products depended on helium to pass market quality standards, such as X-ray tubes, airplane engines, and nuclear fuel rods, which surprised decision makers and raised awareness of larger financial impacts that could result from helium shortages. Dr. Ku, however, stressed that the ability to overcome company firewalls and safeguards enabled access to information at the right level of granularity for actionable results, but this free flow of information does not occur everywhere in manufacturing, which may require creativity to navigate data constraints and achieve sustainable outcomes.
Dr. Ku also presented the economic case for sustainable manufacturing to businesses. McKinsey and Company leads many conversations about the business case for sustainability by using greenhouse gas cost curves (Figure 4-1). These cost curves display two opportunities in engaging private decision makers to consider more sustainable action by showing, firstly, that about a third of the curve’s carbon-cutting activities is economical and profitable for businesses to implement, shown in Figure 4-1 as recycling and energy efficiency plotted against cost per ton of CO2e; and secondly, that the immediate profit and benefit shown in this curve resonate with business decision makers, shown in Figure 4-1 by the low cost per ton of CO2e of the capital intensity of carbon cutting activities, i.e., recycling and energy efficiency, and encourage consideration of further sustainable actions.
The second graph in Figure 4-1 further frames the issue of costs within the concerns of private decision makers by measuring capital intensity. In this context, the development of a set of scientific indicators and data points that link economic and financial values frequently occurring in business decision making may be beneficial.
Dr. Ku touched on the dynamics gap in sustainable manufacturing and business discussions and the importance of bringing experts from different disciplines to the table to explain unexpected and emergent phenomena. In an analysis performed on the relationship between rare earth consumption and light-emitting diode (LED) production,
most publicly available projections for rare earth consumption show linear increases as LED production increases; however, a reexamination of these projections through consultation with a colleague with domain expertise in phosphors provided information and insights that contributed to making smarter assumptions in analysis inputs, adding to the model’s ability to simulate and determine the system’s root causes, actors, and significant material flows.
Dr. Ku explained that seeking different input and perspectives from across the supply chain—e.g., legal department; environmental, health, and safety—has augmented his engineering and technology work. Cross-functional engagement may motivate decision makers to act on the collective knowledge generated. Future project designs and implementation could greatly benefit from collaborations between experts from different domains.
Julie Zimmerman, associate professor of environmental engineering jointly appointed at the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, provided an overview of what the business status quo reveals about achieving success in the marketplace and how the sustainable manufacturing field has diverted or will divert from the status quo to improve product and process function, performance, and service. Popular status quo metrics, as well as assessments of cost-benefit analysis and risk assessment may take a limited approach to evaluating outcomes. In addition, such metrics and assessments may not accurately measure the systemic nature of the market. According to Dr. Zimmerman, the fragmented approach of these assessment tools has pervaded business policy, investment, supply chain, and design decisions. There is room for creative and innovative thinking to build future economies and businesses that benefit human well-being. Dr. Zimmerman cited a number of examples where market trends and manufacturing outcomes deviated from the anticipated results of the status quo. Examples included the rise in demand for costlier green and healthy products, and billions of dollars spent in health care to treat disease and health problems associated with chemical exposure. These examples are counter to traditional arguments that toxic chemicals and waste are the cheapest option for business. In addition, the declining cost of decentralized wind and solar power that has made these energy sources competitive with centralized coal providing another such illustration of deviation from the anticipated results of the status quo.
Amidst inaccurate market predictions of the status quo, Dr. Zimmerman noted that changed thinking prompted by innovative and systemic questions is needed. In her own research aimed at achieving a product’s or process’s function through more environmentally and socially friendly means, alternative solutions to toxic chemicals were developed by considering all the different means to achieve a function. One example includes DuPont’s use of biomimicry to design fluorinated compounds for waterproofing by mimicking the structure of the lotus flower
leaf, in which water balls up and rolls off the leaf, allowing for the retention of the function of water repellency without the toxic product associated with it.
Steven Skerlos, co-director of the Program in Sustainable Engineering at the University of Michigan, discussed notions of framing sustainability as a set of necessary conditions to achieve, rather than applying a separate “sustainable” approach to many fields. Dr. Skerlos identified four conditions for any field to achieve a sustainable system: (1) identification and measurement of progress in addressing an important environmental or social challenge, (2) mitigation of potential unintended consequences to where they do not outweigh social and environmental benefits, (3) the self-sustaining adoption of the system by the market, and (4) attainment of balance that allows a system’s economic success to not negatively affect other planetary or social systems.
Dr. Skerlos highlighted a set of activities and innovations in automobile industries that indicated sustainability progress in the manufacturing sector. One such activity, adding wear-resistant coatings to the top of crankshafts, showed that automobile companies may reduce millions of pounds of emissions because the coatings increase both the lifespan and speed of the crankshafts. Despite sustainable advances and innovations in the automobile industry, Dr. Skerlos acknowledged that sustainability manufacturing has devoted minimal efforts to address larger questions of the enterprise decision-making process, such as “should fossil fuels continue to power automobiles?” A sustainability context could add significant value to business product, process, and policy decision making by contributing regulated market behavior models that account for unexpected and irrational consumer behavior, life-cycle assessment models from economic and social perspectives in addition to environmental perspectives, and models assessing the local and regional impacts of supply chains.
One National Science Foundation project is attempting to add the sustainability frame to business decision making by applying a framework that measures life-cycle emissions of supply, demand, and market behaviors in the automotive sector following regulations. This consequential life-cycle assessment takes a more holistic approach in informing market-driven decisions by overlaying consumer choices, policy directives, and profit maximizing behavior (Figure 4-2). When addressing market-driven questions such as whether the revised fuel economy standards in 2012 would increase vehicle size, Skerlos’s model determined that vehicle size would likely increase contrary to the assertions of many others.
The findings of this study, while insightful, resulted in minimal influence in the decision-making realm; regulators did not change fuel standards, and automobile manufacturers continued traditional practices that may lead to increased car sizes and safety risks. Dr. Skerlos remarked that, overall, many sustainability manufacturing indicators effectively evaluate resource consumption of various activities, but not many metrics and indicators exist that analyze how these activities affect worker health, local and regional ecosystems, and the inner workings of supply chains.
For Dr. Skerlos, developing more holistic indicators and metrics that incorporate all aspects of the triple bottom line of people, prosperity, and planet, requires both more education and development of system-level models industry by industry. Thousands of engineers in the United States are trained each year in isolation from the consumer and may not be capable of applying their methods and life-cycle assessments to decision making, markets, and policy. Education, particularly in the social sciences, could enable these scientists and engineers to add valuable insight and inputs into societal organization and advancement. Finally, the potential and continued evolution of focused system-level models for each industry may offer significant insights to the science and technology decision-making space.
In the question-and-answer session, Dr. Skerlos and Dr. Zimmerman weighed in on the automobile-sharing economy started by such market disruptors as Uber and Lyft, and whether this emerging trend will cause large-scale changes from a sustainability perspective. Dr. Skerlos predicted that these entities would contribute minimal results in mitigating global ecosystem problems of greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution, as many in the automobile industry view the sharing economy as an opportunity to sell cars at a normal or higher rate. Dr. Zimmerman countered Dr. Skerlos’s comments by arguing that the sharing economy’s high potential to disrupt the future market creates an opportunity, perhaps an obligation, to start designing the sharing economy to benefit sustainability. While the potential for the shared economy to tackle such issues is present, this may only be possible if actors configure the policy landscape to shift the market away from consumption through mechanisms such as a carbon tax.
Another question concerned the topic of autonomous vehicles as a possible example for how an emerging economy can create significant sustainable benefits. A hypothetical situation was proposed wherein an immediate transition to 80 percent adoption of autonomous vehicles took place, causing a dramatic decline in cars on the road. The reduced number of cars would reduce the need for roads and parking places while providing an opportunity to transform grey infrastructure into green space, storm-water management infrastructure, and so forth. Dr. Skerlos noted that such a complete transition would likely not take place until 2050, well past the point that climate-change impacts would occur. While autonomous vehicles may offer numerous solutions in the long term, a sense of urgency and principal focus on actions that may be implemented under the shortness of the time frame available would be useful.