Carbon capture28 May 2013

There's more to energy saving than switching the shopfloor onto switching off. Annie Gregory finds out how the best are doing it.

There's a lot more to shrinking a business's carbon footprint than installing low-energy lighting and reminding the shopfloor to switch off the compressors. Major strides towards lower carbon operation are invariably achieved through a combination of judicious capital investment and new, sustainable changes in focus and behaviour.

The pace is a lot quicker if engineers, production staff, managers and, indeed, accountants willingly share their brains and skills to kill the waste. And the main problem will always be balancing the initial pain of major outlay, infrastructure changes and different working practices against paybacks that often seem more an act of faith than judgment.

We'll look at how a few good manufacturers have reached a balance between technology and team effort, and managed to fit the specific demands and culture of their business. Before that, however, it is worth remembering that radical new thinking can also produce big gains. Dale Marriott, UK head of operations at Gazprom Energy, says that with increasingly volatile energy costs, firms would do well to look at aligning their operations much more closely with the energy market.

"This means being less bound by traditional ways of working, and considering strategies such as alternative operating hours in order to shift peak energy consumption into periods where it may be cheaper," he explains. "For example, National Grid offers incentives for larger energy users to reduce their consumption during peak periods, when the network is under the most pressure. This might mean limiting the use of energy-intensive processing equipment at certain times or rescheduling working hours to operate outside of peak periods.

The benefits are two-fold: National Grid will not only pay those businesses as and when they call on them to reduce consumption, but they'll also pay them upfront for opting into the scheme in the first place."

He warns that getting the right contract in the first place is critical. For example, Gazprom Energy worked with Sheffield Forgemasters to design one for the very specific nature of its business. Orders for its heavy forged and cast steel products are often received years ahead of actual production. So there is a real risk it might commit to a gas contract in advance, only to find unexpected increases in energy costs make the order commercially unviable.

Its agreements with Gazprom, however, allow it to buy large volumes of gas well into the future, at the best market price. If it doesn't use all the gas, it is allowed to unlock its commitment and sell the gas back onto the market. Equally, if the market price falls and Forgemasters believes it can meet its future needs at a lower price, it can sell and then buy back at the better rate.

Malcolm Lee, energy and commercial manager at Sheffield Forgemasters, adds: "We really saw the benefit of this a few years ago when the gas price rose to over £1/therm. We had to buy forward … for the production schedule we had for the next 18-24 months. But then we saw gas prices start to tumble, so we sold back quite a bit of our future commitment. I'm sure some people thought we were stupid selling at a loss in this way but our strategy was then to buy it all back again at an even lower price, ensuring we were well secured for our future needs."

This is an example of where astute buying can really bring down the costs but doesn't actually reduce energy consumption. So let's take a look at a case with clear, tangible return on capital investment that also pays back in a reduced carbon footprint.

Sri Lankan manufacturer MAS's new factory was funded by Marks and Spencer to produce something it designates 'the world's first eco underwear'. Sorry to kill the wilder fantasies: it simply means products made through carbon-neutral, green and ethical processes. The large, open plan production area uses specialised roof material to cut heat transfer and incorporates 36 EcoCooling evaporative coolers instead of conventional air-conditioning, reducing energy consumption by 75%. The result is not just a comfortable working environment for 200 workers, but energy costs that are 40% lower than a similar sized building.

Of course, it's easier to be green when you are building from fresh. It's when you are trying to change enshrined practices that things get interesting – and a lot more difficult. So let's have a look at an established business that is steadily improving its energy efficiency.

Aimia Foods was the 2012 winner of the Best Factory Awards, so you'd expect its performance to be good. In fact, what is most impressive is the lack of fuss attached to the systematic reduction of its carbon footprint. It is simply something that dovetails into its near-fanatical focus on overall improvement. The goals and values of energy-centred projects – often originating from shopfloor suggestions – are shown alongside other current projects on the walls of Aimia's 'Information Corridor'. They are echoed in clear, graphic detail in the production areas, showing exactly what it wanted, the reason for the improvement, who is responsible and how it will be achieved.

Aimia has harvested the low-hanging fruit very competently. It used the skills of four Cambridge graduates working on a short-term project basis to research its current usage, providing a platform for future energy reduction programmes. In line with their recommendations, it made some serious capital investment in more efficient boilers and two new compressors, each saving some 40 tonnes of CO2 annually. Variable speed drives increased drive lifetime from 24,000 hours to 36,000 hours, which meant not just more flexibility in planning maintenance, but a total cost-saving of £7,500-plus.

A new lighting system with PIR sensors was installed in a separate production area and was so successful it was rolled out to the warehouse. This project was conceived by one of the engineers who managed the whole project through to completion. It not only brought a marked improvement in the working environment, but also cut electricity consumption by 87%, an annual saving of 36,600kg of CO2. It takes a practical approach to new equipment: the low-energy lighting was installed when old tubes needed replacing, and the introduction of a new agglomeration process provided a useful opportunity to replace the boiler.

So far, so good – but not too far out of the ordinary. Where Aimia really scores is in its ability to draw on the skills of people across the business to combine process and energy-saving improvements. Aimia uses hoshin kanri to turn strategy into clearly understood, day-to-day activity. Overall objectives are cascaded down into a clear set of KPIs and responsibilities. But what really makes it work is a company-wide ethos of mutual support and co-operation which works at both simple and technically demanding levels.

Let's take a look at energy-saving in action. A 2011 objective of achieving zero landfill involved virtually everyone in the business in finding better ways of segregating and disposing of waste. Every single idea was seriously evaluated. Today, Aimia has not just reached its goal, but is actually making money from the process. In under a year it recycled an astonishing 316 tonnes of waste including cardboard, plastics and steel, and made £34,812 from doing it.

At a slightly more technical level, a recent objective demanded a reduction of 15% in steam usage in a process that shrinks film sleeves onto a jar in a steam tunnel. Two engineers, three production operators and someone from QA shared the task of optimising equipment settings to minimise use, while still meeting quality standards.

The team actually exceeded the target, reducing consumption by 25%. From concept to implementation, it took only two weeks and that included clearing the project scope with the customer initially and sending them samples to make sure they were happy with the result.

Aimia also met a target of a 20% reduction in gas use in its agglomerator – which changes powder into granules for dry blending – in a project that illustrates how many different disciplines are needed for an effective outcome. In this case, the team not only had the usual members from engineering, QA and production, but also one from new product development. There were several highly technical aspects needing Six Sigma techniques: the granules had to be sized to work efficiently in vending machines and to still dissolve easily in the cup, and slight ingredient changes were needed.

One of the hallmarks of a well-run company is the ease with which it can take an embryonic idea and enthuse people across all disciplines to develop and apply it effectively. In Aimia, a sensible suggestion by a senior operator has now turned into a major process change, and produced massive savings in bought-in nitrogen. Nitrogen is used to flush oxygen out of sealed 'stick' packages, produced in a 10-lane process. If one of the lanes went out of range, the gas level would have to be increased over the whole 10. Bottled gas is expensive and the waste was painful.

The first idea was simply to modify the equipment to direct the nitrogen into individual lanes, but it rapidly snowballed into a project to understand the nitrogen injection process, determine the causes of erratic oxygen levels and eventually run the whole shebang using nitrogen sourced from air through an in-house nitrogen generator. The project drew upon operators' process knowledge and data recording, introduced extra Six Sigma training in techniques to validate process changes, redesigned standard operating procedures and employed some external expertise for both consultancy and operator training. Finance staff provided support in analysing payback and – most importantly of all – the whole project was sponsored by managing director Rob Unsworth, backed by the board and owned by operations director Patrick Mroczak.

Shared goals save money
Savings are nearly £30,000 a year and payback on the generator was achieved in only 12 months. The whole story is a stellar example of how capital investment and shopfloor know-how can come together to produce a real step-change when goal-sharing and co-operation are already accepted ways of working.

Not every manufacturer can rely upon the same level of shopfloor engagement and commitment as Aimia. The Institute of Employment Studies was recently commissioned by the Scottish government, Defra and the 2020 Climate Group to investigate what works in delivering low-carbon behavioural initiatives in the workplace. (See

The report highlights the actions taken by 10 innovative employers, most usefully in Coca-Cola Enterprises' (CCE) East Kilbride manufacturing site. Since 2009, with the help of the Carbon Trust, it has been working towards a target of reducing CO2 emissions by 15% by 2020. In 2011, it successfully achieved its first goal of zero waste to landfill from a 2006 total of 200 tonnes. It has achieved 99.3% recycling and 0.7% is now used to generate energy. The site produced 17 million cases of drinks in 2012 using 2 million fewer kilowatts of electricity than in 2011.

There are many beliefs it holds in common with Aimia, but the most important is their common insistence on a workplace culture that "has a sense of collective pride and strives to be the best, beat targets and be innovative".

Steps to low carbon working
- Instill shared environmental values, persuading staff of the value of changing their behaviours.
- Tap into collective pride. Use incentives carefully, without alienating other groups in the organisation.
- Put information in language people understand and can relate to. For example: 'Leaving the light on here at the weekend uses the same amount of energy as powering your home for three months.'
- Motivate behavioural change by raising awareness of the negative consequences of not recycling.
- Give staff the right tools and facilities to make behaviour change easy.
- Build a brand – use newsletters to illustrate what the company is doing to be more environmentally conscious throughout its workplaces.

Annie Gregory

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Aimia Foods Ltd

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