Paradigm Shift in Automobile Manufacturing

“Handling auto waste is emerging as a big issue and the automotive industry should create a ‘disposal chain’, similar to supply chain, so that vehicles that ultimately turn into scrap bundles can be effectively disposed of,” says Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, R. Chidambaram.[1]

He envisions this to happen in the future for Indian automobile sector.

The automobile manufacturing industry in India is one of the largest in the world. Annually producing more than 3.9 million units in 2011[2], India’s commercial vehicle and passenger car manufacturing industry is the sixth largest in the world.

The pollution caused by manufacturing of one car can be imagined by the fact that it involves extraction of iron ore, bauxite, petroleum, copper, lead, and a variety of other raw material to process steel, aluminum, plastics, glass, rubber, etc. The material necessary to construct automobiles consumes generous amounts of resources, uses extravagant amounts of energy, and has somber environmental repercussions.

Auto waste can be classified as:

  1. Raw material waste
  2. This constitutes raw material wasted from the process, work-in progress (WIP), bought out items, finished goods inventory and goods in transit.
  3. Manufacturing aids waste
  4. This constitutes the material for indirect use in the manufacturing process, aids, maintenance spares, servicing spare parts, fuels for boilers, generators, etc. This category also constitutes the machine lubricants and coolants, aqueous and solvent cleaning systems, paint and plastics.
  5. Office waste
  6. Office and warehousing wastes, such as paper, printer cartridges, pallets, packaging materials, organic wastes, wastes from food materials for employees, etc add to the waste generated.

Paradigm Shift

Within rapidly growing economies, the demand for resources and the disposal and handling of growing volumes of waste streams have started taking its toll on a constrained and already polluted environment. But, the last decade has witnessed a paradigm shift from waste management to waste prevention.

Manufacturing companies are increasingly realizing that the way forward is through use of a green assembly line in a factory that does not belch out black smoke and create thousands of tons of landfill; not to mention that greener vehicles are in demand among the environmentally aware consumers.

Automakers lately have been aware and are making attempts at improving their factories these days, with low waste plans, use of solar power, source reduction to reduce the amount of hazardous waste that is generated, and recycling of the waste that cannot be prevented within the production process.

It becomes all the more important when the cars themselves get cleaner–like the latest wave of electric and hybrid vehicles, Toyota Prius being the latest one on our home roads.

Contribution to the Bottom Line

For automakers, moving toward electric cars is a very expensive process, with expected payoffs and profits far into the future. But making production facilities greener also makes them more efficient and greater efficiency reduces costs. Manufacturing at large scale stands little chance of becoming truly green, but snowballing improvements could put the auto manufacturing industry right at the forefront of greener production.

Sustainable growth is a primary goal for auto manufacturers. It not only helps build the brand image of car manufacturing, but most automakers are finding that it helps save capital and hence contributes to the bottom line.

At Ford, they plan to cut their energy usage at manufacturing plants by 20 percent by 2016, and cut down their use of water and its wastage by 30 percent by 2015. Water savings for Ford in 2012 alone amounted to $3 million.[4]

Recovery, Recycle, Reuse

Automobile manufacturers today have moved from being manufacturers to assemblers with a vast majority of components being sourced from vendors at different tiers. This model has matured to a point today where 2nd tier vendors sometimes having minimal interaction with the OEM and Tier 1 Suppliers directly delivering sub-assembly. But any benefits drawn along this value chain only stands to benefit OEMs and vendors in the long run and this fact is being increasingly acknowledged by manufacturers globally.

Among the variety of wastes generated by various players in the Automobile value chain many have the potential to be subjected to the “Recover-Reuse-Recycle” process to yield significant gains.

Raw materials:

  • Aluminium body stamping trimmings can be directly recycled as they already have the necessary metallurgical components and properties.
  • Aluminium casting flash, machining chips and process rejections are all readily recyclable and fetch a good price.
  • Plastics trim processing waste, rubber processing waste and foam components are also easy to recycle.

Manufacturing consumables:

  • Sand used in casting, coolants used in machining, paint primers and solvents are reusable and with minor capital investments, facilities can be developed for easy and extremely profitable reuse of these consumables.
  • Water with additives used as a coolant in forgings, sometimes in metallurgical processes and as a cleaning agent before surface treatment processes can be processed and reused continuously.
  • The plastic caps and fixtures to protect critical parts from dust and damage, also the packaging plastics and paper can be cleaned and reused. If damaged they can be easily recycled as well.

Office waste:

Organic wastes in the form of paper, food products, canteen residues, plant trimmings can be used as feedstock in low capacity organic gasifiers developed by companies like GE. This technology recently developed by GE uses organic materials and using combustion in an oxygen deficient atmosphere to develop producer gas extremely efficiently to be fed into highly efficient gas turbines to generate power.

Energy recovery at many places along the processing is possible with many efficient systems developed today for these purposes. These include:

  • Waste heat recovery in casting
  • Waste heat recovery in forging process
  • Waste heat recovery in heat treatment of components
  • Paint booth baking heat recovery

The recovered heat can be used for interior space heating in colder regions and also in case of feasible quantities can be used for processes like drying jet heating etc. Several of these possibilities have already been explored and successfully implemented in some companies.

To site an example, Honda’s North American plants recently claimed to have reduced the proportion of manufacturing waste sent to landfills as just 0.5 to 1% of the total waste generated. Due to the initiative, waste sent to landfills reduced dramatically at Honda auto plants throughout North America–from 62.8 pounds in the fiscal year 2001, to an estimated 1.8 pounds of industrial waste per automobile produced in the fiscal year 2012[4]. Remaining waste product is reused, recycled or used for energy recovery.

Focusing on minimization of waste helps organizations address high raw material costs, rising hazardous waste treatment and disposal charges, and pressure to increase the sustainability of their operations but whether ecologically sustainable business practices enhance the financial position of a company strongly influences their promotion and adoption.

Future in Automotive design and Green manufacturing

Mercedes has recently launched the new S-Class which has been awarded the TUV Environmental certification. The breakthrough from Mercedes in its latest model of S class takes into account the environmental compatibility of the vehicle across its entire life cycle- from production through its long years of service to end-of-life recycling. This analysis far exceeds the legal requirements. TUV Nord awards vehicles like Mercedes S-class with the environment certificate based on variety of factors other than just emissions like impact of sourcing of materials on environment, recyclability of components, percentage of recycled materials used and overall lifecycle environmental impact.

Concepts like Design for recovery are taking root in Europe where regulations encourage the manufacturers to design and develop products with one or more of the following objectives in mind:

  • Easy selective removal of recyclable materials
  • Meeting a certain minimum recycle rate for materials used
  • Prohibition of harmful substances
  • Increased recycled material content

Manufacturers in the future are more and more likely to work on these lines. This is acknowledgement of the fact that a manufacturer has the responsibility of not just the product in its inception and production but also throughout its lifecycle.

Vivek Acharya & Deepali Singhal, NMIMS – Mumbai