Process innovation from the Flor

Posted on 27 Mar 2009 by The Manufacturer

With an aim to give back more than it takes from the environment, InterfaceFLOR describes how it manages manufacturing process innovation in its drive towards sustainability

InterfaceFLOR is the modular flooring division of Interface inc, a worldwide leader in the production of environmentally responsible modular floor coverings.

During the mid nineties, well before most companies recognised the need to reduce their impact on the environment, Ray Anderson, the company’s founder and chairman, came to the conclusion that businesses could no longer continue to consume the earth’s natural resources without regard for the future.

He implemented a new corporate strategy through the company, called Mission Zero, with the aim of decreasing the organisation’s environmental footprint to zero by the year 2020. This strategy now plays a central role in the organisation’s ethos and culture, and all Interface companies consider the environmental impact of every decision made.

The majority of the process innovations that InterfaceFLOR has introduced so far are by no means unique, and would be easily transferable to any manufacturing business with the drive and the desire to minimise its effect on the environment while continuing to produce high quality products.

The different faces of sustainability
Interface has developed seven facets to its drive for sustainability:
Eliminating waste
Benign emissions
Renewable electricity
Closing the loop
Resource efficient transportation
Sensitising stakeholders
Redesign commerce

While all of these have impact on the manufacturing processes, three of the seven truly guide the company’s approach to manufacturing and provide a context for its continued process innovations.

Eliminating waste
Introducing procedures to eliminate waste in manufacturing is an obvious way to improve a company’s environmental credentials. First of all, a business needs to define what exactly it classes as waste. Does it include only product waste, or do other things come under that banner as well? Interface defines it as ‘any cost that does not produce value to the customer’. Under this definition, waste can mean scrap, in the traditional meaning of the word, but it also includes processes, such as things that aren’t done properly the first time round – a misdirected shipment, an incorrect invoice, a defective product or simply the small amount of waste produced in the manufacturing process.

To eliminate waste in manufacturing, InterfaceFLOR in Europe has introduced lean manufacturing which uses overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) as a benchmark and tools such as total productive maintenance (TPM) and process flow analysis to measure, address and improve all areas of the factory process. OEE has been implemented at all InterfaceFLOR manufacturing facilities, including its factory in Shelf where the OEE has improved year on year since it was introduced in 2004, recording a 10 per cent total improvement.

One of the initial results from the lean manufacturing implementation has been the identification of a bottleneck within the Shelf facility’s packaging division, leading to unacceptable levels of downtime. By implementing tools such as OEE and TPM, downtime within this unit was reduced by 71 per cent.

Energy is also a consideration for any business looking to call itself sustainable. Currently, all of InterfaceFLOR’s manufacturing facilities in Europe operate on 100 per cent renewable electricity, with 27 per cent of Interface inc’s global consumption coming from sustainable sources such as wind turbines, landfill gas, and smallscale hydro resources. Manufacturing facilities such as those in Shelf and Craigavon have also had new intelligent conveyor systems installed that only operate when there is something to move as opposed to being in constant motion. In addition, InterfaceFLOR has implemented other initiatives, such as intelligent lighting systems and compressor management, which only operate when needed.

InterfaceFLOR’s facility in Scherpenzeel in the Netherlands is also a good example of the company’s approach to energy and how it is consumed. The plant boasts visible solar panels, an energy mirror, as well as efficient lighting, which includes the use of light tunnels working off GPS tracking systems and diffusers in order to maximise the amount of natural daylight reaching the factory floor. Movement sensors allowing for more efficient energy consumption are also installed.

Closing the loop
Finally we come to ‘closing the loop’. This is where the manufacturing process is redesigned to more closely resemble the cyclical nature of living systems as opposed to the traditional linear industrial system of ‘take, make and waste’. As a company, Interface is currently striving to reduce the use of raw materials and working to get the most value out of the materials that it employs. This includes, where possible, the careful recycling of all materials, so that waste products in society become valuable raw materials in industry. It also means making sure that wherever possible, materials are kept uncontaminated, so that they can return to their natural systems. Through the use of renewable energy, rematerialisation (replacing petro-based materials with non petro-based materials), and de-materialisation (creating products with fewer raw materials), Interface has been consistently able to reduce the use of petroleum-based components in its products since 1996.

Ireland’s best practice
Core to InterfaceFLOR’s environmental progress is its manufacturing facility in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, which produces 110,000 m2 of carpet per week. The plant’s cutting-edge machinery, some of which is unique to Europe, is among the most versatile available. For example, the machinery not only allows operators to vary a carpet tile’s pile height, texture and depth, but also the mixing of loop pile and cut without the need for shearing. This speeds up production and reduces waste in the form of off-cuts. In total, the site has benefited from more than £3 million of equipment investment and innovation over the past five years.

The plant follows strict guidelines, introduced to reduce waste. It runs on 100 per cent green electricity generated from a number of renewable sources, including Altahullion – the largest wind farm in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, through a series of reviews and new process introductions, every by-product of the manufacturing process – down to shearing dust, waste yarn and left-over backing cloth – is re-used. This has helped the Craigavon site to reduce both its consumption of raw materials and the energy used in procuring them, as well as eliminating landfill to virtually zero.

In 1995, Interface developed its EcoSense programme, designed to provide a roadmap to guide the company towards sustainability. In 2006 the Craigavon plant saw off competition from all of Interface’s global manufacturing sites to achieve first place, surpassing its closest rival by 62 points. Categories measured as part of EcoSense include environmental and quality management systems, employee training, resource efficient transportation, sensitising stakeholders and educating employees in sustainability awareness.

Keeping score
Of course, all of the process innovations mean nothing if a business fails to record its progress. Monitoring a company’s environmental initiatives is vitally important; it not only provides a benchmark to measure future initiatives by, but also injects staff with the motivation to carry on improving and refining their sustainable practices. To measure its impact on the environment, Interface has developed its own evaluation system, known as EcoMetrics.

To date, Interface’s effort has achieved impressive results:
Energy efficiency and renewable energy programmes have resulted in a reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions of 82 per cent.
Improvements to its production processes have allowed a 75 per cent reduction in global water usage.
Since 1995, cumulative avoided costs from waste reduction have totalled $372 million.
Reduction and recycling programmes have allowed a 75 per cent drop in waste from manufacturing to landfill since 1996.
Innovations in production and design have reduced the total energy consumption per unit by 45 per cent.
All of InterfaceFLOR’s European factories work on 100 per cent renewable electricity and 27 per cent of the company’s total energy consumption now comes from renewable sources.
Interface operates five facilities that use only renewable energy from sources such as biomass, solar and wind.

InterfaceFLOR also records measurements such as metres of carpet tile produced per man hour, a downtime analysis and perpetual stock checks. The company also benchmarks the findings on a shift-by-shift basis to encourage friendly competition between co-workers.

Innovation through motivation
Process innovations alone, however, will not take a company to complete sustainability. The fact that the measures put in place so far have been so successful is due in no small part to the people on the factory floor who really believe in the aims behind the strategy. The company actively encourages its staff to get behind Mission Zero by suggesting and implementing their own green initiatives and innovations which arise out of business improvement teams of which every person on the shopfloor is a member.

There is still a long way to go to becoming completely sustainable, but the company is certain that eventually, innovations will take it into the realm of being a restorative business, where it will give back to the environment more than it takes.