Resource efficiency: Can sustainability and improved profit go hand-in-hand?

Factories are responsible for approximately 36% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, Professor Steve Evans, Director of Research at the Centre for Industrial Sustainability, University of Cambridge, shares his insights on how resource efficiency can be good for profit margins and the environment.

Sustainable Resource Management Sustainability - Stock
Factories contribute around 36% of greenhouse gas emissions globally.

Moving towards improved sustainability could seem daunting for manufacturers.

What should be prioritised? Will it be a distraction? Will it use up precious resources? Is it even affordable?

But what if you had a clear business case to show that improved sustainability would also help your bottom line? And what if that could be achieved using today’s existing technologies and know-how?

Did you know that only 50% of edible food we produce is eaten? Or that only 10% of processed material reaches the customer? Just think about that: an eye-watering 90% of the resources we process are not reaching their intended recipient.

These figures – from a report from the Next Manufacturing Revolution, a not-for-profit collaboration to promote a more resource efficient manufacturing sector – highlight the high levels of waste and inefficiency all around us. And there’s more. For example, in the UK (a tiny island but with a pretty good motorway system) trucks on average carry only 27% load factor – so 73% of total truck haulage capacity is not being used efficiently.

Factories are responsible for approximately 36% of greenhouse gas emissions globally, and often the carbon footprint of manufacturing operations is closely related to how efficiently they operate.

It’s clear that we need to be working towards reducing such inefficiencies. But is it realistic to think we can take significant steps towards addressing these issues without sinking bank-breaking costs in the process?

No need to reinvent the wheel

Rather than waiting for new revolutionary technological solutions, what can we do with the knowledge and capabilities we already have?

This is one of the main questions we need to ask about industrial sustainability, and an issue I regularly discuss with industry leaders and policymakers, because the solutions are often more about organisational strategy, culture and behaviour than about technical capabilities.

Factory Automation - image courtesy of Depositphotos
The right strategy can make the industrial industry more sustainable – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Many of the answers may surprise you. When analysing efficient use of resources, we’re talking about how we use energy, water and materials, and how we minimise waste and pollution.

Economic principles would suggest that businesses will seek and find the most efficient ways to operate in order to drive down costs – and resource efficiency is imperative for this.

And yet, the evidence shows that most companies are not using resources efficiently. In fact, they’re often unaware of where their inefficiencies are, or even if there are things they can do immediately that don’t rely on heavy investment (or a new round of funding).

Toyota: More cars, less energy

Why is this worth doing? Take the example of Toyota. In the UK, Toyota has been reducing the energy it uses to manufacture a car by 8% every year for 14 years. When re-calculated each year, we see a 76% total reduction over the period.

The company can now make four cars using the energy it used to take to manufacture one car 14 years ago. Crucially, Toyota has done this by identifying improvements to energy usage, not by depending on a major new technology to revolutionise the business.

If manufacturers moved just half way from their current resource usage towards the usage of the most efficient companies in their own industry, our research indicates that the impact in manufacturing would be 12% increased profit, 15% more jobs, and 5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Cementing a change

The global cement industry is the second largest industrial producer of CO2, responsible for around 5% of global emissions. If it were a country, it would rank as the third highest producer of emissions after China and the US. It’s an industry of low margins and high capital, resulting in many plants being decades old and very inefficient.

Cement factories produce a high amount of CO2 - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Cement factories produce a high amount of CO2 – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Research by my colleague Dr Daniel Summerbell, from the Centre for Industrial Sustainability, investigated the scope within existing plants to improve their efficiency via changes not dependent upon capital investment. This has been done through analysis of performance variations.

The research looked at three cement plants in the UK, using plant data and computer modelling to understand the impact of fuel mix on performance, particularly the fuel-derived CO2 emissions.

The increasing use of alternative fuels has been a defining trend in the cement industry over recent decades, which has had clear benefits for plants, primarily in reduced fuel costs. Of course, there’s also been a marked reduction in carbon footprints.

However, because of the diversity of materials being used as alternative fuels, the exact relationship between thermal substitution rate (or TSR, the proportionate heat substitution when using alternative fuel) and environmental impact in terms of CO2 emissions is not always clear.

Accordingly, research by our team at the University of Cambridge with Hanson Cement (a UK supplier of heavy building materials to the construction industry) has sought to investigate the uses and the limitations of TSR as a metric.

The research has found that improving fuel mix, by the use of a newly-developed metric, could reduce fuel-derived CO2 emissions by 10% or more. While such improvement is subject to the availability of appropriate fuel and operating conditions, the low capital requirement makes it very attractive to industry players.

The chart shows the variation of fuelderived CO2 emissions in a cement factory, produced to make a day’s worth of cement. The research compared the median performance of the plants with their 90th percentile best-observed performance.

This gap was found to be large: essentially, there can be a huge difference in emissions between the best day (around 190kg emissions) and the worst day (around 340kg emissions). It indicates that standardising performance could reduce fuel consumption by approximately 6% and fuel-derived CO2 emissions by as much as 16%, all while operating within the existing capability of the plant.

“Through uncovering this enormous variation,” said Summerbell, “we were able to work with the plant to analyse where the variation was happening, and model the operations in detail to identify the causes. We found that the most significant variables were fuel mix and excess airflow, both of which could be adjusted using existing systems in the plant to improve efficiency.”

Summerbell and his team estimated that at projected prices for 2030, the saving could be worth 1.7m euros per year in carbon prices alone for a single plant. So, how can companies and their supply chains work towards improved resource efficiency? At the Centre for Industrial Sustainability we’re working on a number of ways to help manufacturers use resources more efficiently.

We identify three key strategies:

1) Understanding value opportunities

We need to start by pinpointing places where resources are wasted, and where opportunities are missed for creating value. As demonstrated in the examples above, better use of resources is frequently a source of improved profit margins.

Cambridge Value Mapping Tool
Cambridge Value Mapping Tool

We have developed the Cambridge Value Mapping Tool to help companies recognise where value is being captured, and where it is not (which we refer to ‘uncaptured’ through missed, destroyed, surplus or absent value), using a structured and visual approach.

We use this to analyse exchange of value through the lens of each stakeholder in the business network, with the natural environment and society each being given its own voice.

2) Scalability

Beyond identifying where resources are squandered or where value is not captured for an individual company, we also need to understand how to scale the findings across industry.

For industrial sustainability to be more widely achieved, it is essential that we don’t just work in siloes where one company works out a clever trick and says, ‘job done’. We need to understand how to scale these solutions.

There’s an imperative to find solutions that work at scale and increasingly at speed. If we are to hit the 2030 targets set out in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (the Paris Agreement) we need to work towards significant change at the rate of 6% or above improvement per annum of energy, water and material efficiency, as well as reducing waste.

Scalability is also about cooperation across industry. Change can be achieved more effectively if organisations collaborate and learn from each other to achieve overarching goals that are in both the individual and the collective interest, and by understanding how other companies are making efficiency improvements. This can be supported by engagement from policymakers.

3. Deploying simple tools

To make efficiency improvements more achievable for manufacturers, scalable, practical and easy-to-use tools are required. Resource usage needs to be more visible, then ways to address it made straightforward and measurable.

We’ve been collaborating with Manufacture 2030, an organisation which provides a cloud-based platform called M2030 Bee which helps manufacturers use less energy, water and materials, and thereby cut operational costs and environmental impact. This type of approach, well researched and carefully implemented, will make a valuable difference.

We have developed other tools and methods in the Centre for Industrial Sustainability that further support resource efficiency. These include our Zero Loss Yield Analysis (ZLYA), helping manufacturers measure their actual yield from raw materials compared to their expected yield.

The results from YLYA are often enormously illuminating – a recent manufacturer we worked with discovered that its actual waste was 14 times greater than expected, and was able to take steps to reduce it. Continued efforts to help manufacturers to use resources as efficiently as possible can result both in a reduced carbon footprint and substantial financial benefits.

Professor Steve Evans is Director of Research in the Centre for Industrial Sustainability at the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge.

Drawing on 12 years of industry experience and 20 years in academia, his research seeks a deep understanding of how industry can develop solutions that move us towards a sustainable future. He was recently invited to speak on resource efficiency at the prestigious ‘Falling Walls’ event in Berlin, and his talk can be watched at falling-walls.com/videos/SteveEvans-18318. He can be contacted at se321@cam.ac.uk.

If you would like to find out more about deploying tools and techniques in your own manufacturing operations, or attend a CIS workshop, contact Ian Bamford at imb31@cam.ac.uk.

For more information about the cement industry research, Dr Daniel Summerbell can be contacted at dls43@cam.ac.uk.