The autoroute to net zero

Posted on 24 Mar 2024 by The Manufacturer

Net zero is a key driver within the automotive industry which is having a huge knock-on impact on the supply chain. David Marriot, Quality Manager at automotive tiered supplier, Vestatec, speaks to The Manufacturer.

In recent years, sustainability has been a hot topic for businesses of every industry across the globe. Whether the approach is to find greener alternatives to fossil fuels, to reduce embodied carbon within the manufacturing process or to source environmentally sustainable materials, it is clear the vast majority of sectors are finding new and innovative ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

For the automotive industry, sustainability sits at the heart of manufacturers’ strategy for growth, so it is not just a case of reducing vehicle emissions and developing alternative fuels to help tackle global warming. Vehicle OEMs are becoming increasingly aware of how practices throughout the development and production lifecycle can be changed to create a more sustainable industry, and ultimately a greener final product.

While the world’s net zero ambitions press on, huge global disruptions such as the semiconductor shortage, the COVID-19 pandemic and sky-rocketing fuel prices have had a knock-on effect, causing delays throughout the industry. Some reports show that over 12 million vehicles were scrapped by automakers in 2022 due to the impact of the chip shortage alone. Now, with car sales on the rise, manufacturers are looking to recuperate some of the loss of earnings during this time.

Furthermore, vehicle manufacturers are continuing to use these sustainable practices to develop their global vehicle offerings, while doing so in a cost-effective way.

A change for the better

To help accelerate the industry’s transition to a net zero future, vehicle manufacturers are requesting that additional criteria be met when working with Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers.

Indeed, as OEMs continue practices to decarbonise the sector, tiered suppliers are being asked to meet these demands to ensure each element of the end product has been designed, procured and engineered through a process that has been made as environmentally friendly as possible.

David Marriot, Quality Manager at Vestatec, a leading metal forming, assembly and PVD coating specialist for the automotive sector, commented: “Over the last decade alone, we’ve seen many of our customers seeking more information about our own sustainable practices while quoting for various projects. This typically includes a whole range of elements; from the materials we procure to the amount of energy used throughout the production process.

“Interestingly, in this case, there is no one, blanket rule set by governing bodies or associations that we must adhere to, and every vehicle manufacturer has a bespoke request to match their marque.”

David Marriot, Quality Manager at Vestatec

David Marriot, Quality Manager at Vestatec

Bringing an industry together

A recent report from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) shows the automotive supply chain reduced the amount of energy used in 2022 by -4.3% and the amount of energy used per tonne of output shipped by -23.4% – meaning change has already started to show across the industry. However, there is far more that can be done by tiered suppliers, to not only meet the criteria of both smaller and larger vehicle manufacturers but also create a much greener future for all.

This includes switching to more energy efficient heating appliances, reducing the number of single use products used throughout the pre-and post-production process, or installing solar panels to reduce demands on domestic electricity and CO2 emissions.

In fact, the SMMT report shows a 60% increase in reported on-site renewable energy production helping automotive suppliers to reduce their total recorded CO2 emissions by -8.2% and their CO2 per tonne of output shipped by -26.5%. Moreover, renewables generated 46GWh of renewable energy across automotive manufacturing and supply chain sites.

David added: “These figures from the SMMT show the clear impact sustainable practices are already having on the automotive industry and will help the sector establish a blueprint for what can be developed across the supply chain to reduce carbon emissions worldwide.”

Vestatec’s journey

On a mission to reduce its carbon emissions across the board, Vestatec continues to invest in greener ways to operate its production process. To begin, the company created its own Environmental Team, formed to find solutions that would reduce its carbon footprint and stay ahead of the demands set by existing and future customers.

The first action taken by the team was to explore renewable energy options, with the decision made to install solar panels on the roof of its 20,000 sq. ft. factory in Nottingham. Producing 97,000kWh of solar energy per annum, these installations are now powering 25% of the factory’s energy and therefore reducing its dependence on the national grid. Moreover, the system is forecasted to reduce Vestatec’s CO2 emissions by 21 tonnes annually, improving the company’s environmental credentials and contributing to a greener future.

Moreover, as part of its Triple Bottom Line plans, Vestatec began to implement new ways of reducing its plastic wastage in partnership with its customers. Annually, more than 240,000 speaker grilles are packed into plastic trays in quantities of six and shipped to European-based Tier 1 facilities. Reviewing this arrangement, Vestatec decided more could be done to reduce the amount of single use plastic heading to landfill.

Following a mutual agreement between Vestatec and its customers, nearly 40,000 trays shipped to Europe are now returned to be reused, saving approximately 20 tonnes of plastic per annum from being discarded unnecessarily. This not only means a significant reduction of waste in the vehicle OEM supply chain but also a positive saving to the cost of the product.

David added: “Our decision to begin adapting our facility was crucial to doing our part in reducing carbon emissions of both the company and our customers. To date, we are seeing an incredible difference in the changes we are making and we’re looking to push this even further by implementing more eco-conscious changes to our facility and our business.”

Changing traditions

With the EU’s proposed ban on hexavalent chrome due to its high carcinogenic properties and unsustainable production processes, manufacturers from across the automotive sector have been forced to find a suitable alternative, particularly for interior trim.

Europe isn’t the only region starting to make changes. Early this year, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) made a drastic move to ban the use of hexavalent chromium in decorative plating by 2027 – something that even extends to the aerospace manufacturing industry for 2039.

However, more environmentally friendly processes, such as physical vapour deposition (PVD) coated stainless steel, can be utilised to enhance a vehicle’s interior and exterior trim without the harmful emissions found with chrome plating.

PVD coating takes place in a vacuum with vaporised metal and a combination of gases mixed together to create a metal film that is 100x thinner than a human hair. Unlike conventional coating methods, such as chrome plating or paint, the component substrate is enhanced in the PVD process.

When combined with a full-surface treatment of brushing, bead blasting, machine turning or polishing, a decorative component is formed without sacrificing function for fashion. Offering a range of metallic colours, including blue, silver, gold and black, vehicle manufacturers can offer their customers more bespoke options to make their car interiors unique.

Not only this, but PVD provides added environmental benefits for end-of-life vehicle regulations too, as the stainless steel components are 100% recyclable at the end of their life.

David concluded: “PVD coating is a much more sustainable solution to more traditional forms of metal coating, such as hexavalent chrome.

“Having recently made a seven-figure investment at our factory, Vestatec is one of the few tiered suppliers with its own in-house PVD coating facilities and we’re already working with leading vehicle manufacturers to provide drivers with a variety of interior options to suit their lifestyles.

“Not only this, but it highlights the capabilities and processes readily available to the industry and the conversations other vehicle manufacturers can start having about implementing PVD coated interior trim into their vehicles.”

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