6/1/2000 | 16 MINUTE READ

The Color of Money

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The greening of the auto industry is a good thing. But beyond being the right thing to do for your kids and their kids and their kids' kids, you may still ask “Why?” Go ahead now and fish a bill out of your wallet and look at it. There's your reason. Perhaps the most important thing you need to know about environmental awareness is that if it hasn’t already, it will come to occupy a prominent place in your work life. Soon. It will come to you cloaked in a philosophy called life cycle thinking, in which the environmental impact of every action taken by your company is measured, optimized, recorded and improved. But don’t be afraid, green is good. Not only can it save or generate money for your company, but it’ll keep Big Government off your back, and may even help to make better products. Best of all, the kids will thank you.


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To quote a famous frog, “It’s not easy being green.” It’s also hard to know where to start. The key green idea (it’s been described as the “frontier” of environmental awareness) is life cycle assessment (LCA). LCA is a method for measuring the entire environmental impact of a product: from its beginnings as raw materials through design and manufacture, through the entire useful life of the product, until a recycling process turns the product into something new. (Buzzword: “Cradle to cradle.”) LCA has been used by some in the auto industry for over a decade. Others may not be too familiar with it. Rest assured, the OEMs will be making sure that everyone is using it.

LCA is complex. It actually resembles value stream mapping, but from an environmental standpoint. As a rudimentary example, take a simple part, like a stamped steel valve cover. The raw material, iron, has to be mined. Then it gets processed and made into steel. Then the steel sheet gets stamped into the part, which gets painted. While this is certainly oversimplified, you can see how many steps in the process might have environmental consequences: the mining itself, energy used to operate each of the facilities, scrap material from stamping, emissions from the paint shop, etc. This, however, is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

There are also ramifications in the design of the product and the behavior of the product as it passes through its useful life. For instance, does the steel valve cover eventually begin to leak at the gasket, thereby creating emissions and necessitating a replacement part? What if you made the valve cover out of plastic instead? That might save some weight, thereby improving fuel economy. This seems like an environmentally sound idea, but would a plastic material allow more emissions due to its increased porosity? What about when the vehicle reaches the end of its useful life and needs to be scrapped? How recyclable is a steel valve cover vis-à-vis the plastic one?

As you can imagine, real life cycle assessment is far more complicated than this contrived example. Throw in the fact that it involves an entire supply chain that may stretch around the globe and you can better understand why the level of environmental responsibility envisioned by the proponents of life cycle thinking hasn’t yet happened. But it will.


General Motors wants to be a lot of things. (Some would say too many.) One of those many things is environmentally conscious. And while the typical reaction to an automotive company publicly stating that they are concerned about the environment is usually derisive, that typical reaction is also usually wrong. In fact, GM can serve as a fine example of how car companies are working to improve their environmental responsibility and grappling with the issues that surround life cycle thinking.


“At GM, we think leadership should be judged by measuring the company’s total impact on the environment. Too often, people—especially the media [we stand accused –Ed.]—make judgements and draw conclusions based on the company’s perceived impact in one environmental area, whether it’s air, water quality, ozone depletion, forest depletion, and so forth,” says Dr. Dennis Minano, GM vice president, Environment and Energy Chief Environmental Officer. “What really counts, however, is the company’s total environmental footprint. And to achieve the smallest footprint, companies must balance all aspects.”


Carl Freeman, executive director of the Truck Integration Engineering Center at GM, recently led the development of its new full size pickups. He claims that this is the first time that GM has considered the entire life cycle of a vehicle in making environmental choices in its design and manufacture. To do so, the program team collected as much life cycle assessment data as it could. The following improvements were made as a result:

• Conserving resources: Weight reduction of the truck created an improvement in fuel economy. For one model year’s production volume, this would save more than 180 million gallons of fuel over the 17-year life of the vehicle.

• Reducing waste: Using hydroforming for frame sections eliminates 20,000 tons of scrap steel each year.

• Using recycled materials: 200,000 lbs. of Saturn plastic fenders are recycled to make hubcaps each year. Tires are also recycled to make various shields, air deflectors, and brake pedal pads.

• Design for the environment: Using bussed electrical connections eliminated 18 tons of lead that would have been used for solder each year. Similarly, one ton of mercury was saved through the redesign of underhood switches.

Freeman believes that his team might have done even more, had the engineers and designers had more information concerning the environmental, social and economic implications of what they do.

“Having some tools is better than having none at all. Having the right tools is even better. Using the right tools effectively is the best situation of all,” he says. “In terms of total life cycle, our industry is somewhere between having no tools at all and having the right tools to accomplish the overall objective of minimizing the total vehicle impact on the environment.”


“What if every engine block were made of aluminum?” asks Freeman. “What impact would that have on bauxite mining? What impact would new mines and more bauxite mining have on the environment? What’s the right thing to do?”

These are the kinds of questions that he and his cohorts ponder for the future. And while they certainly don’t have all the answers, Freeman believes that it is still necessary to make the best attempt at environmental improvement possible, based on the best information available. While some might maintain that in lieu of the perfect solution, one should play it conservatively, Freeman would rather “push the envelope.” This means developing broader and deeper data in life cycle assessment, but it also means paying even more attention to the rest of the supply chain, even beyond the traditional sense of tiered suppliers. Minano explains: “In today’s global marketplace, no company can do it alone, We now must extend our working partnerships to include manufacturers, other suppliers, environmental groups, and yes, even the government.”

DaimlerChrysler uses a home-brewed tool called “life cycle management” to make environmental business decisions. (This is not to be confused with “life cycle thinking,” which is an attitude; or “life cycle assessment,” which is a tool to gather data on environmental consequences.) Life cycle management uses cost as its basis for making decisions. This makes it appear simple; pick the least expensive choice. But what’s not simple is that this involves more than just comparing price quotes from suppliers. Life cycle management seeks to calculate the true cost of a product or service, which includes the consequent costs that will be incurred as a result of choosing said product or service.

Robert J. Kainz, senior manager of Pollution Prevention & Life Cycle Management at DCX, identifies factors that can be used to calculate a true cost: price, performance, timing, weight, environment, recycling, health and safety, quality, emissions, ancillary waste streams, warranty claims, hazardous substance content, tooling, labeling, storage, packaging, and potential liability. Gathering all this information and attaching a dollar value to it, however, involves a lot of different people: materials engineering, occupational health and safety, plant management, purchasing, environmental management, suppliers, and platform engineering. Not only do these people have to work together to share information, but outside sources like government databases and consultants must be used as well.

Interestingly enough, DCX has found that, generally speaking, although environmentally hazardous substances tend to have a lower price than more environmentally friendly alternatives, the associated costs of using the hazardous substances tend to be much higher. More often than not, alternatives to hazardous substances usually end up saving money in the long run, in addition to being the right thing for the environment.

Green pays.

Magic Carpet Ride

“Many recycling processes that have been developed in recent years have had sustainability from an environmental standpoint, but not from an economic standpoint. Ultimately, unless you fix the economic issues, the thing will die,” says Clint Christian, a global business manager at DuPont Automotive (Troy, MI). “What we’ve decided to do is bring to the industry recycling processes that are sustainable from an economic and environmental standpoint.”


Ammonolysis Process
"Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn and cauldron bubble…" While DuPont’s new ammonolysis process isn’t magic, it is the first such process that’s capable of chemically recycling both nylon 6 and nylon 66.

While some might think it necessary to resort to the black arts to achieve these two often contrary goals, DuPont is attempting to do just that. It’s building a demonstration facility in Maitland, Ontario, to showcase a new ammonolysis process for chemically recycling both nylon 6 and nylon 66. The facility, scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, is intended to not only prove that the new process works, but also seed the market with recycled nylon in expectation of launching a larger-scale, strictly commercial operation in the future.

Christian explains that this is the first method for recycling nylon that’s been developed that doesn’t discriminate between the two popular versions, a key to making the process flexible enough to be commercially viable. The proprietary process depolymerizes the nylon, returning it to its basic monomer building blocks, which can then be used to make “virgin-like” nylon intermediates. Although what results is not virgin material, the chemistry is such that there is zero degradation of its properties. Thus, the new nylon is every bit as good as virgin nylon, yet can still be considered “recycled content.” Christian states that this makes the material particularly attractive for OEM sourcing requirements that are increasingly specifying certain amounts of recycled content.

Even more interesting than the chemical process, however, is the infrastructure behind it. DuPont is not initially sourcing scrap automotive nylon to feed the facility (though this would be a possibility in the future). Instead, it’s using regular carpet that’s been removed from homes and office buildings. Why carpet? It’s a great source of feed material: half the carpet that gets reclaimed is usually nylon 6 and the rest 66. (Hence the value of a chemical process that can handle both types.) The carpet comes from over 90 reclamation centers that DuPont set up throughout the U.S. and Canada as part of its “DuPont Carpet Reclamation Program.”

While the name of the program may be less than exciting, this infrastructure is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to making recycling an economically viable endeavor. “The key to anything in the feed stream is that you have a collection process in place—this is often overlooked,” says Christian.

DuPont is also working with the automotive supply chain to develop automotive nylon reclamation solutions, though the sources of nylon in automotive (radiator end tanks, underhood fasteners, intake manifolds, etc.) tend to be a bit harder to acquire and recycle. For the present, however, the magicians in Maitland will be focusing on proving to the world that their carpet chemistry is no hocus-pocus.


Clean Green Water

Nissan recently completed the implementation of a wastewater improvement program in its Smyrna, TN, fascia paint shop. The program was administered through a series of “impacts” (kaizens) with water treatment supplier BetzDearborn (Trevose, PA).

Nissan’s fascia paint shop has two sludge pits, in which overspray from the its two paint booths is carried in a closed-loop stream of water. This water needs to be chemically treated to detacify the paint and cause it to float. This keeps the paint from sticking to the bottom of the pit and gumming up the works, as well as allowing the paint to be skimmed out of the water and removed from the system. Of course, this process is not perfect and eventually the system needs to be cleaned, which requires draining the water.

Previously, the pits had required skimmer maintenance every week and needed to be dug out every six months. BetzDearborn provided its own proprietary chemical treatments, which improved the effectiveness of the paint removal. This allowed skimmer maintenance to be extended to two weeks and pit dig out to three years. Furthermore, the quality of the wastewater leaving the plant when the pits get drained is improved.

Over the six years it took to fully implement the program, waste material was reduced by 918 cubic yards and 500,000 gallons of water were saved. Net cost savings were over $200,000 for the period.

The Almighty Euro

There is a proposal currently kicking around the Commission of the European Communities for a “Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on End of Life Vehicles.” This is a rather long-winded way to describe a similarly long-winded document that basically says that an OEM is required to reclaim and recycle old cars and trucks.

The directive should be adopted within the next year and once it is passed, all EC member countries are required to pass their own legislation calling for OEMs to set up reclamation centers where consumers can leave their junk vehicles. The reclamation centers would then have to dismantle the junker and ensure that most of the vehicle’s content is re-used, recovered, or recycled. This is where the really tricky part of the directive lies, as the targets set for these processes are in the 80-85% range, with plans to go as high as 95% by 2015. The directive calls for periodic reviews of the targets, but rest assured, they’re probably not going to be going down.

So where do these im-pending laws leave North American OEMs or suppliers? Very interested in life cycle thinking ideas like design for the environment and design for (dis)assembly. (Rationale being: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and if you intend to be global, you’d best be “in Rome.”) Very concerned that this type of legislation will come to the U.S. sooner rather than later. Very opportunisticin that getting their environmental house in order may give them an edge on their competition.

Getting Lean. Going Green.

During the recent sixth annual Lean Manufacturing Conference sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Japan Technology Management Program and The Lean Enterprise Institute, value stream mapping was a widely discussed topic. The mapping is all about determining precisely what steps are taken and moves are made as materials are turned into products. Practitioners (cartographers?) assess what the steps and moves are they now, and, more importantly, what should they be in the future (i.e., when there is a greater percentage of value-added time than there probably is in the present state). As the speakers discussed value stream mapping, they emphasized that it isn’t something that should simply be considered with the walls of a given facility, but that it is important to take into account the entire development chain, which means that the time and travel both internally and externally of suppliers and/or allied facilities must be assessed, as well. After all, it isn’t just a matter of how efficient you are within one department or facility when there are likely to be others involved. It is all about the system.

What is likely to be found is that a product-in-becoming can be literally described by a map that traverses hundreds—perhaps even thousands (e.g., something coming from across the Pacific)—of miles. Which, of course, is not particularly lean. To be lean means to be continually working to minimize waste. Taiichi Ohno, the man who is credited with creating the Toyota Production System, identified the following types of waste arising from:

• Overproducing 
• Waiting 
• Unnecessary stock 
• Processing itself 
• Unnecessary motion 
• Producing defective goods 
• Transporting.

Clearly, long travel distances are incredibly wasteful.

book cover

While an increasing number of people in automotive companies are becoming more interested in becoming lean, when it comes to the waste that is associated with the environment, the emphasis wanes. To be sure, there are the companies that are getting ISO 14001 certification. And there are the companies that are doing such things as planting trees.

But when you get right down to it, the environment tends to be something that often gets the under rated vis-à-vis economic considerations (plants are nice, but production counts). Which brings us to You Can’t Eat GNP: Economics As If Ecology Mattered by Eric A. Davidson (Perseus Publishing; Cambridge, MA; $24.00).

Debates about the environment tend to be based more on rhetoric than science (even when scientists are involved, and Davidson is a scientist). Although it would be better if it was otherwise, in point of fact, science isn’t as neutral as some people would like to think: In the case of the environment, there are scientists on both sides of the issue, and those that get better publicity are those whose ideas are going to get wider play in the public arena.

An analogy (and don’t forget: an analogy is a rhetorical trope) that Davidson puts forth is that of tobacco. He points out that the tobacco lobby had its scientists out there making it seem as though inhaling smoke full of who knows what kind of particulates wasn’t proven to have deleterious effects. Sure.

Essentially, Davidson is pitting ecological considerations against neoclassic economics (the prevailing school of thought). He has devised what he terms “Three Fallacies of the Current Mainstream Economic and Technological Model,” and he is clever in his approach. As in:

1. Marie Antoinette Economics: “. . .one economist argued that we need not worry much about global warming on the economy, because the only sector of the economy that he considered strongly influenced by the climate is agriculture, which contributes only 3 percent of the United States’ GNP. Like Marie Antoinette’s suggestion that French peasants without bread could eat cake, this view of how the world works seems to suggest that if the crops fail, the people could eat the 97 percent of the GNP that remains.”

2. Custer’s Folly: “. . .assumes that the technological cavalry will come over the hill in time to save us from ecological disaster.” Davidson isn’t against technology, but he posits that there are “essential natural resources” including “soil, air, fresh water, oceans, and forests” for which there are unlikely to be substitutes for in our lifetimes.

3. False Complacency from Partial Success (or ‘Not Beating the Wife As Much As Before’): “A bit of progress is no reason for complacency in a world where forests are being converted to ranches, farms, and abandoned land at an astounding rate, where the genetic diversity of plants and animals is declining and species are going extinct at unprecedented speed, where fisheries are collapsing, where soil is eroding faster than it can be regenerated, where heat-trapping gases are accumulating in the atmosphere, and where groundwater is becoming depleted and contaminated.”

Even if what Davidson puts out as his set of facts are taken with a huge grain of salt, it seems as though the generations to come are not going to have the same conditions that we do today. Sometimes you hear people talking about gasoline being less expensive than bottled water: It is not inconceivable that at some point, the price of water could become that of gasoline—all of the water that‘s used.

Given that process people in the automotive industry are interested in becoming lean, eliminating waste—in all aspects, throughout the system—is something that they should take a leadership position on.

Better Products By Growing Green

Mercedes-Benz S-Class

This photo illustrates the parts of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class that are made from natural fiber reinforced composite material. Using natural fibers has many environmental benefits:

• Processing natural fibers requires less energy than glass fibers.

• Natural fibers weigh 40% less than glass. This weight reduction leads to better fuel economy.
• Natural fiber-reinforced polypropylene can be recycled by shredding it for injection molding.
• Working conditions are safer, as natural fibers are harmless—unlike glass, which can cause skin rashes and respiratory disorders). 
• Potential sources of natural fibers include plants like flax, sisal, and hemp. Therefore, the material can be locally sourced all over the world. Not only does this reduce transportation costs and associated pollution, but can also create new industry in the third world.