Friday, January 15, 2010

Low Hanging Fruit - 2

The term "low hanging fruit" is employed here to address things that can be done with out a lot of staff or resources and, specially, for smaller companies. This is of particular interest with respect to measuring or characterizing your scope 1-3 impacts. And, we agreed upon a definition of cost, or what's "too much for a small company," by starting with free and moving upwards. We continue the discussion started last week.

I was discussing this with one of my graduate students, Corinne Reich-Weiser, the other day and she commented that, actually, smaller companies may be at an advantage with respect to these calculations since in general the number of details for a product, financial interactions, suppliers, etc. might be smaller. She is working with a small company herself during her PhD studies, Climate Earth in San Francisco ( They work a lot with companies of all sizes and have an approach that does enterprise and supply chain carbon accounting, specially the tricker Scope 3, based on the company's financial data and utility bills, etc. So, for this data smaller is better. (I have no stake in Climate Earth's business and only use this as an example of a situation when the requirements (data, cost, time, personnel) for assessment scale with the size of the business.)

In the previous posting, January 7th, I built the comments on material recently submitted to a life cycle engineering conference in China (and Corinne was one of the co-authors). Last time we discussed facility or spatial representations of frameworks for green manufacturing. We termed this part of the process to "find the tree" so we can look for the low hanging fruit. Now we go on to the temporal aspects of the life cycle assessment.

To do this, we start with the design of the product, and proceed through the design of the manufacturing process or system for the product, through to process optimization, and finally post-process control and abatement. I've been representing the "levels" of manufacturing in this way for some time. It is a convenient way to visualize the decreasing flexibility or choices (engineers might call these degrees of freedom) that occur as you move from the conceptual design to the concrete elements of a manufacturing process.

These levels are temporal in nature across the design-to-manufacturing lifecycle of the process, and can be applied in characterizing the degree of control over the environmental impact at each level. We've arbitrarily labeled the highest level as Level 1. It is the earliest in design and manufacturing - the "clean sheet of paper" stage all engineers dream about doing when they are in engineering school! At this stage all future decisions to be made in subsequent (and lower flexibility) levels 2-4 can be influenced. At Level 1 process design is integrated with part design and there is the most control over considerations of part precision, environmental impact, and manufacturing scale. Here there is scope to design the product as well as its manufacturing process to satisfy specific requirements in all the criteria.

At Level 2 fundamental process design and planning is performed for a fixed part design, and this drives the part precision, environmental impact, and manufacturing scale. Here there is extensive control over the performance of the process in all the criteria as allowed by the process design and planning.

At Level 3, process parameter selection and optimization is used to control the part-precision and the process environmental impact; control over the process scale at this level is limited by the flexibility possible with process planning and optimization.

Finally, at Level 4 post-process finishing and abatement processes are used in controlling the part-precision and the environmental impact; at this level there is no control over the process or product or system as it has already been designed.

A graphic visualization of these levels is shown below (click on the image for more resolution.) You can imagine how this basic structure can be mapped onto pretty much any product or process or system.

From these hierarchies – which span temporal and organizational spans – we get a sense of the complexity involved in information capture and transfer in manufacturing systems, especially what is required to support effective environmental analysis.

We need to clearly identify the quality and quantity of information that passes through the interfaces between the levels. As information crosses the interfaces, the potential for noise/inaccuracies dramatically increases.

Next time we'll discuss the interaction between the four temporal and spatial levels described last time and just above. We'll see how we can experience a loss of decision making flexibility as decisions earlier in the product design cycle or lower in the supply chain effect the ability to make decisions at higher levels.

Finally, I am writing this from Europe where I am participating in a production engineering academy meeting. That means I had a long plane ride with a lot of time to catch up on some reading - mostly Fortune and Economist magazines. Fortune had an article on getting a green job and pointed to community colleges as the place to go (see Getting a Green Job in Two Years, Mina Kimes in Fortune, November 23, 2009). Community colleges tend to be faster to respond to these growing markets for technical training and the article points to the example of Johnson Controls in Milwaukee partnering with the Milwaukee Area Technical College on a program to train solar installation designers and installers. Johnson Controls is installing a 2,500 panel "solar education farm" for this collaboration (and get some power out of it too!). (For details see

In the December 7th, 2009 Fortune Marc Gunther writes about Best Buy's aggressive program to take your electronic waste back at their stores and recycle it. Besides getting customers in the stores the article quotes Best Buy's Senior Director of Corporate Responsibility as expecting this to be a break-even proposition depending on commodity prices. Since many states and some cities require electronic manufacturers to help finance recycling, the economics are tricky but breakeven, or even profit, is possible.

But there's more! And this is really interesting. Best Buy is looking at how to give products "a second life." They are partnering with a company in Irvine California (DealTree; see that helps manage trade-in and auction, processing of used items - the reverse supply chain we saw in the Ricoh comet chart. Customers can get credit in the form of gift cards for "gently used" electronics. They are also toying with the idea of the customer leasing an electronic product, for example, by guaranteeing a trade in value after some period of time.

We spoke of this concept some time ago and the real benefit being that companies design products differently if they are responsible for them (and must take them back and recover/recycle the material). As much thought then goes into taking them apart as assembling them in the first place. That means that the "lower levels" of manufacturing play a more prominent role at level 1 since they strongly affect this recovery/recycling and, importantly, any resulting profit.

And, the Fortune article states, this would remove the penalty of trading up in terms of technology every time a new electronic gadget comes along!

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