SMEs come together to solve sustainability challenges

Posted on 27 Mar 2024 by The Manufacturer

WMG, University of Warwick is on a mission to increase sustainability in the UK’s manufacturing supply chain. Over the last two years it has welcomed over 40 SME manufacturers onto its Net Zero Innovation Network (NZIN). In this feature, we delve deeper into how the programme works and profile some of the company members that have made great strides to reduce energy consumption and emissions.

Following the launch of the government’s Net Zero strategy in 2021, WMG at the University Warwick knew that there would be a need to support the manufacturing supply chain and SMEs with the ambitious targets.

Research has shown that SMEs contribute 44% of the UK’s private sector greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, yet nine out of ten don’t fully understand what the government’s target of making the UK net zero by 2050 means for them, and just one in ten businesses are actually measuring their carbon footprint.

The programme

Already delivering a range of support programmes to SME manufacturers and with a team of experts in place, WMG designed a new project to respond to the challenge. The WMG Net Zero Innovation Network (NZIN) brings together five to eight SME manufacturers to form a cohort with a larger ‘customer’ manufacturing organisation and a member of WMG’s SME group to work together on net zero challenges.

The WMG Net Zero Innovation Network consists of six key elements:

Innovation Project: A five day technical innovation project to overcome a sustainability challenge which can reduce material costs, increase turnover, improve productivity, generate new products or gain a competitive advantage for the business involved. Best

Practice Visit: An opportunity to observe sustainability innovations and best practice at other UK manufacturing businesses to help generate ideas for firms.

Net Zero Readiness Assessment: A tool to assess how prepared a business is to meet net zero targets looking at their current position in terms of buildings and facilities, organisation and culture, supply chain and logistics, manufacturing processes, and materials and services.

Collaboration Events: A series of events and workshops for businesses to meet experts in green manufacturing and to discuss important sustainability topics.

Net Zero Roadmap: The generation of a ten-year roadmap to net zero and business action plan developed in collaboration with one of WMG’s sustainability experts. The idea is to use the roadmap to win tenders or as part of corporate social responsibility activity.

Grant Funding: The opportunity to apply for £10,000-£100,000 to support the implementation of sustainability and energy efficiency projects and equipment funded through the UK government’s Shared Prosperity Fund.

Part of solving this issue is to help SMEs understand the benefits of decarbonising the workplace. Sustainability is important to businesses but the ultimate drivers for this kind of change are reducing costs, boosting reputation and meeting their customers’ growing requirements for a greener supply chain. The energy crisis really accelerated manufacturers’ desire for action in this space to minimise the impact of price hikes.

Net Zero drivers

First participants

Since 2021, ten cohorts have been established, with 40 manufacturers joining the programme. The WMG SME Group is currently recruiting businesses for the next cohort.

The first companies to join the programme were:

Steven West, Head of Operations at Armac Martin said: “The NZIN cohort was really insightful; it enabled us to gain support with a practical project, whilst collaborating with other organisations. It’s given us direction in our journey to net zero as part of our dedicated sustainability strategy.”

Theprogramme at a glance
The programme at a glance

Armac Martin’s project involved working with WMG to implement sustainable packaging for key product lines in the business. WMG explored recyclable, compostable and returnable options and the product chosen was a cost effective and biodegradable paper-based material. It has reduced packing time significantly, leading to productivity gains in the business.

WMG also looked at the potential to reduce emissions across Scope 1, 2 and 3 in the business, highlighting a range of opportunities for them to take onboard, such as installing solar PV panels and creating a company-wide pledge around sustainability targets. Armac Martin has joined a new 2024 NZIN cohort to measure its Scope 1 and 2 emissions as part of its commitment to achieve net zero by 2041.

Swedish electric vehicle firm, Polestar, helped to initiate the second cohort, bringing some of its supply chain together, including:

Victoria Rothwell, Group Lead for Energy Attributes at Polestar commented: “At Polestar we realise that the journey towards net zero and improved sustainability can’t be done alone. We wanted to work with the wider automotive industry and engage our supply chain to help improve the overall impact of the UK automotive industry on the environment, so that these benefits are not just realised by Polestar but by any other company who works with our suppliers.”

Alucast’sManaging Director, Martin Haynes and Chairman, Tony Sartorius
Alucast’s Managing Director, Martin Haynes (left) and Chairman, Tony Sartorius

Impact and reductions

The 40 participant companies have realised a range of benefits through the programme. Energy cost reduction has been key, but others have launched new products, some are implementing clever strategies to redivert wastes, and others are re-examining processes and product design to cut both carbon emissions and costs.

The UK energy crisis has hit manufacturers hard. Like many other businesses across the UK, the rising energy prices were impacting production costs at James Lister & Sons and reducing its bottom-line returns. Having already implemented energy minimisation measures such as a four day week, CEO Peter Davies wanted to continue to push forward and joined WMG’s fourth Net Zero cohort.

WMG set about installing a series of low-cost current clamp sensors onto equipment to collect energy usage data at the Listertube division of the company. The data collected enabled the company to review which machines used the most energy, and at what time, to generate a cost per KW/hour. By identifying which assets consumed the most, and what products they made via what process, WMG could analyse if it was possible to switch production from one asset to another to save energy.

WMG identified that by turning off machines when not in use, the company could save 15% in energy costs across the production facility. They also proposed that by prioritising one machine over the other to create the product, it could result in an 82% energy saving on some individual machines. Overall, these measures saved the company 19% of energy expenditure per year.

Alucast joined the third cohort programme for the same reason. As a very high energy user, and faced with a 300% increase in energy costs, it needed to reduce consumption drastically and identify where energy was being wasted. WMG suggested that the aluminium foundry should implement shutdown periods over the weekends rather than leaving machines idle. A common myth is that by fully shutting down machines, there will be issues with restarting them again. However, this is an easy quick win to begin making savings.

Using a series of monitoring devices, the company measured consumption of four different types of machines (17 machines in total) when left idle compared to being switched off. Essentially, by managing machine uptime more effectively to ensure energy is only used when processing parts, substantial energy and carbon savings can be made.

The findings through the project highlighted that Alucast could save 95,107kWh in energy usage, which equates to £78,225 and 19,971kg in C02 equivalent. To put this into perspective, 19,971kg C02 amounts to driving around the world in a diesel car almost three times.

New product opportunities

The Alternative Pallet Company, based in Northamptonshire, provides a range of lightweight, strong paper-based Honeycomb pallets under the trade name PALLITE. They joined WMG’s cohort programme to streamline production processes to make the most of all the materials they use. Although the PALLITE products are more sustainable than timber alternatives, there were still efficiencies to be made, with ten tonnes of paper honeycomb offcuts sent to recycling each month.

WMG’s SME Group set out to find an alternative use for the Paper Honeycomb offcuts using the 6 Rs sustainability hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse, rethink and repair. After looking at various ‘repurposing’ options the company suggested that two new packaging inners and fitment products could be made with the material which would have otherwise gone straight to recycling.

This led to an additional £144,000 in annual revenue for the firm. In order to ‘reduce’ the amount of offcuts generated in the first place, WMG also recommended PALLITE invest in a slitting machine to slice the offcuts into packaging inners and packaging fitments. It reduced waste offcuts by six tonnes per month, which is a 60% reduction in the energy used to recycle material.

Richard Darlow, Operations Manager at The Alternative Pallet Company, said: “WMG’s Net Zero team have experienced resources that can quickly absorb information and understand their customers’ needs and challenges. They then collaborate and provide their thoughts with a much wider view than the customer, which promotes new ideas.”

Airguard Envirocare, which primarily manufacture filter systems that are used in hotels, restaurants and hospitals, took part in cohort six. It is working to create more sustainable and resilient supply chains in the medical sector. It wanted to see if it was possible to recycle the thousands of tonnes of gowns and curtains that are thrown away each year and make them into other products.

WMG’s second cohort visiting PurityBrewing Company in Great Alne, Alcester
WMG’s second cohort visiting Purity Brewing Company in Great Alne, Alcester

WMG undertook a series of tests on a batch of plastic granules that had been converted from gown and curtain waste to determine the properties and potential to create new products. It also injection moulded parts using the plastic and compared it against virgin polymer. Through the tests it was found that recycled polymer was stiffer than virgin and proposed that products such as bins and trays could be created with it. Airguard now has a potential partnership opportunity with the NHS, while also saving hundreds of thousands of tonnes in C02 emissions through recycling initiatives.

Talking about the support received, Maqq Rafiq, Director of Airguard Envirocare said: “The value of work for an SME like us was immense and it added a lot of value to future goals and how we need to develop the business to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Industrial waste heat recovery

Kingfisher Enamelling, specialists in the vitreous enamelling of cast iron and steel components, was part of cohort five and wanted to determine if waste heat could be recovered from a furnace used in the enamelling process for reuse in other parts of the business.

WMG undertook a feasibility study using simulation techniques to model the current and future state of the furnace room and verified that there was enough thermal energy from the waste heat to heat the company’s drying rooms.

WMG went on to recommend the best options and material choices to enable a hood extraction system in the furnace that would capture the heat. As a result, once implemented, Kingfisher will save around £11,500 in energy costs and most importantly, the project helped to reduce energy consumption and remove reliance on natural gas within the factory.

Value of networking

Aside from the projects, the networking and connections are deemed invaluable by many participants. Guy McDonald, Director and Business Transformation Manager at Goodfish Group, manufacturers of plastic and composite components said: “The NZIN programme was useful to meet other business leaders on similar journeys and to understand the net zero requirements from an OEM’s perspective, in our case Polestar.”

On the back of some of things they learnt in workshops and seminars, Goodfish have invested approximately £70,000 in monitoring equipment to enable visibility of energy usage of all machinery across all three sites.

The company are now able to attribute the carbon footprint or C02 equivalent for each product/part made, which has boosted sustainability credentials with clients. Insulation jackets have also been installed on 70 injection moulding machines which has saved 20% on monthly energy consumption.

PALLITE Operations Manager,Richard Darlow, with WMG’s Laura Downey
PALLITE Operations Manager, Richard Darlow, with WMG’s Laura Downey

Net zero future

Despite reports that sustainability is falling down manufacturers’ priority lists, WMG is pressing forward with the programme and its mission. Small companies are continuing to register an interest and the momentum is clear from the large businesses who take part.

Sara Halliday, Kloeckner Metals UK’s Sustainability and ESG Manager, who participated in WMG’s most recent cohort said: “The Net Zero cohort with WMG has been a positive addition to Kloeckner Metals UK’s sustainability journey.

“Through this programme, we’ve not only contributed to advancing sustainability goals within manufacturing but also forged meaningful partnerships that will drive collective progress towards a greener future. The experience has reinforced our commitment to environmental stewardship, and we hope encouraged other businesses to continually progress their own sustainability plans.”

Dr Mark Swift, Director of SME Engagement at WMG added: “The important thing to recognise with adopting green practices in business is that it doesn’t have to cost you money, but in fact saves money and can lead to increased profitability and value add. We are seeing strong interest from a range of energy-intensive manufacturers, such as foundries and plastic processing plants to get involved in our programmes.

“A typical foundry using ten million kW hours of electricity and gas a year is the equivalent of approximately 500 coffee shops, which is why government support for energy-intensive companies should be a priority. As we help businesses reduce the cost of energy by reducing their use of energy, we are reducing those all important carbon emissions.”

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