Friday, January 8, 2010

Low Hanging Fruit

One of the readers of this blog posed a very interesting question following the December 25th posting and the discussion there about making sure all the scope impacts (1-3) are included in an analysis of a process, system or product footprint. The question was, essentially, what can you do if you are a smaller company than Walmart to achieve any sort of measurement on the indirect stages? The follow on was that the financial and human resources necessary to accomplish this would be huge (i.e. too much) for a small company.

I commented that this was a great question and really gets to the heart of the issue ... what can be done that doesn't require a lot of resources but is effective? Then I referred to this the "low hanging fruit" strategy. I did not mention that, according to Fortune magazine and their Fortune 500 listing, any company other than Exxon is "smaller than Walmart" (see if you want to check this out). But, I believe the question was intended to cover companies in the small to medium size category! So, let's go with that. And, we could have a long discussion about what, in terms of resources is "too much for a small company" but let's start out with free and move upwards.

In my response I mentioned that some "low hanging fruit" ideas include the resources on the Carnegie Mellon LCA website ( that allow a quick look at aspects of your business and calculates a footprint (rough but helpful),  a simple questionnaire to major suppliers, resource providers to see if they are aware of their impacts (embedded energy, resource use, etc.), charting  "where things come from and where they go" (and this could be a useful group activity) to get a sense of the complexity of your production, and, finally (but not free), some of the resources listed in earlier blogs (like the lean green work or economic bottom up LCA tools) can be used effectively. There are also many groups forming in various regions that are struggling with this same problem and they try to network and share approaches to this, and other, issues.

I promised to work on this and use it as the content of a future blog so and go into more detail. It's 2010 and the future is now so I'd like to start the conversation off today and continue it over the next few postings.

By way of the discussion I will be extracting some material from a paper that two of my graduate students and I just prepared for submission to a life cycle engineering conference in China later this year. The paper was on "Appropriate use of green manufacturing frameworks" and was co-authored with Corrine Reich-Weiser and Athulan Vijayaraghavan (Corrine is a current PhD student and Athulan just completed his PhD - both are the kind of students that make being a professor fun and rewarding!).

In this paper, we started out with the comment that the question usually put forward is ‘where to begin?’ This is similar to the set up for this posting and is part of our strategy to address the low hanging fruit. But, first, we need to find the tree!

One of the challenges in assessing the environmental sustainability of a manufacturing process (or system) is the need to parse the process or system in a way that makes it appropriate for application of some kind of analysis - that is "find the tree". When we find the tree (or actually trees in this case) we can then determine our reach and see what is, in that context, "low hanging." And, I promise, this is as far as I will push this analogy!

This is challenging because it’s complicated. Sorting out when and how to use various analysis tools makes it easier to begin. This usually involves determining reasonable size elements of the problem (bite sized chunks so to speak) based on process or system complexity and the level at which the process resides in the design to manufacturing space.

A number of questions arise that must be answered, such as:

- How do we find the optimal balance between productivity, cost, quality and sustainability?
- What performance characteristics do you track and how do they relate to each other?
- In your analysis, what metrics, LCA, decision-making tools can scale over multiple levels?
- What decisions made at one level are not tracked at other levels?

Some of this came up in our discussion about lean and green. We will begin this discussion here and continue it over the next few blogs. First we'll take a shot a defining what our field of view is (sort of the google earth view of manufacturing we had some time ago - see Sept. 15, 2009, I also appreciate that this discussion will go well beyond the original focus of the question raised but, hey, I'm an academic and there are no short answers!

The complexity and sophistication in the organization of manufacturing systems and processes, large or small,  requires a keen understanding of the organization for accurate environmental analysis. To assist in this effort, manufacturing can be broken into “levels of study” across two orthogonal frameworks, spanning organizational and temporal levels. From the perspective of the organization of the system, we can consider manufacturing processes as being composed of four levels, from the level of the individual devices where unit processes take place, through to that of the enterprise, incorporating all the activities in the manufacturing system, including supply chain externalities.

These four levels are as follows:
1- Device – Individual device in the manufacturing system, which is performing a unit process. Support equipment for the unit process are included here such as gage systems, device level oil-circulating systems etc.,

2- Line/Cell – Logical organization of devices in the system that is acting in series or parallel to execute a specific activity (such as manufacturing a part or assembly). Support equipment for the collection of devices are included here, such as chip conveyers, tool cribs, etc.,

3- Facility – Distinct physical entity housing multiple devices, which may or may not be logically organized into lines, cells, etc., Support equipment required at the facility level are also included here, such as power generators, water purifiers, HVAC systems, etc.,

4- Enterprise – The entire manufacturing enterprise, consisting of all the individual facilities, the infrastructure required to support the facilities, as well as the transportation and supply chain externalities.

Given these levels, which are essentially, facility or spatial representations, we'll go on to the temporal aspects of the life cycle - next time.


  1. Small and medium enterprises (SME) should not see the adoption of sustainability as an insurmountable hurdle. They do not need extra organizational resources, but a reallocation of existing human, physical (plant, equipment) and financial resources.

    A few ideas to consider in the easy, fast and cheap to implement:
    1. Product design must be allowed and encouraged to focus on LCA and quality instead of relentless search of lowest cost components. While this might sound heresy to marketing, a "slow-to-market" strategy is necessary to release a sustainable product.
    2. Both product and manufacturing process design should think about main inputs (energy, materials, water, critical environmental aspects defining sustainability) not in terms of internal costs to the business, but of overall costs to the environment and even as revenue sources.
    a. Energy - maximize useful energy (mechanical) and minimize, eliminate useless, residual energy (thermal) during manufacturing
    - utilize useless energy as input to another process (thermal to facility heating)
    - become your own power plant, bu using own facilities to generate clean, renewable energy (best cost avoidance strategy), sell the excess (almost pure profit)
    b. Materials - substitute scarce, toxic, expensive materials (metals with ceramics, steel with aluminum)
    - maximize the use of recyclable and recycled materials (could recycled glass or paper be used instead of cast iron?)

    SME's should view the business needs and challenges of sustainability as excellent opportunities for learning and innovation and as a guarantee of survival.

    Silvia Leahu-Aluas

  2. I think it is great that you are delving into the question of how small business can get involved with sustainability taking into account the natural restrains that small businesses have. We have worked with several small companies (5-15 employees) to improve or implement environmental management systems and sometimes find that at this level, while the language may seem daunting for an enterprise of this size, the implementation is actually easier. Further I think it is important for small business to start thinking sustainably because today's small business will be tomorrow's big business and it is always easier to start with a sustainable mindset from the begining then adopt one at the end.

  3. I like your point of view and vision on the matter.