Take a collaboration of OEMs and suppliers (and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but in a comparatively minor way). Add workgroups, open dialogue, and the ultimate goal of doing the right thing for the planet, while still saving money for the automotive supply chain (this is the auto industry, after all), and you get Suppliers Partnership for the Environment (SP; supplierspartnership.org).
According to SP executive director Steve Hellem, the Washington, D.C.-based organization was established about nine years ago with an initial strategy from General Motors after it saw the progress of “lean and clean technologies” it was using at the then-Saturn Spring Hill, TN, complex. This success prompted GM to ask: “If it works at this facility, could it work in the supply chain?” Which is how SP got its start.
Who & How It Works
There are 45 members, with Ford and Chrysler joining GM. The balance consists of suppliers. Hellem says SP is working to gain membership from companies including Nissan and Toyota; it is also working with representatives in Canada and Mexico to improve the economic and environmental performance of the North American automotive supply chain.
Operationally, SP meets four times a year. Each member company designates a representative for the board of directors, and an executive committee takes care of the day-to-day activities. The organization has four workgroups, which meet at the quarterly meetings, but also hold independent meetings in-person, via conference call, and using webinars. OEMs and suppliers pay market-based membership dues based on the size of their organization (these dues range from $500 to $20,000 annually). Hellem explains that the quarterly meetings serve as a forum for vendors and vehicle manufacturers to develop and share tools, information, knowledge, and technical support to ensure that the suppliers’ products and their processes provide environmental improvement and cost savings.
Collaboration Is Key
According to Hellem, the collaboration with the EPA—which isn’t technically a member of SP, but provides feedback and an expert opinion from a governmental standpoint—helps make SP unique and successful. “The asset of having the EPA at the table with us in the context of these activities is that it helps by spreading the message of what the companies are doing, and transfers it to other sectors.”
A second thing that makes SP unique is that all ideas are strictly voluntary, and no company or agency has to adopt them. He explains: “No one makes anyone toe the line, and we never say ‘You have to implement this.’”
So let’s get to the bottom line of all this. If sustainability is the ultimate goal of SP, then how would Hellem define it? “My definition of sustainability is ‘How do you do the right thing for the environment and still make money?’” he says, jokingly. “But candidly, if we don’t figure out a way to help our companies all collectively do the right thing for the environment and make money, we’re going to be limited in how much success we can have.”
That might not be exactly the way Merriam-Webster would put it, but we’ll take it—as limited and success are two words that no organization ever wants to see in the same sentence.
What They’re Working On
Suppliers Partnership for the Environment includes four workgroups that focus on specialized areas to promote sustainability in the automotive industry. Here’s a little more about each of them:
• Chemical Issues. Discusses emerging chemical issues that may impact manufacturers and the supply chain. The group created a Materials Health & Environmental Assessment Strategy to develop a common screening process for OEMs and suppliers—looking at global chemical regulations and
chemical issues in the interiors and wear parts like brakes and tires. The group’s 2012 project is examining the health and environmental impacts of end-of-life issues.
• Energy and Water. Collects information and holds discussions on ways suppliers and OEMs can work with government entities and utility companies to address issues that affect water and energy supply use by the supply chain. Its main 2012 project is examining energy management systems and their
multiple impacts on both the environment and companies’ bottom lines.
• Materials Efficiency. Develops and deploys environmental technologies and programs to reduce environmental impact and cut costs, while promoting
environmental sustainability. In 2012, this workgroup is continuing to explore the use and possibilities of alternative materials.
• Technology and Networking. Provides a forum for Tier II and III member companies to share technologies, processes, and ideas with the OEMs and Tier I suppliers. For 2012, this group is continuing to develop processes to filter ideas the group proposes so OEMs can make an appropriate assessment of their value.
According to the Container Recycling Institute (container-recycling.org), Americans buy an estimated 34.6 billion single-serving (1 liter or less) plastic water bottles each year. Almost eight out of 10 end up in a landfill or incinerator. Which is pretty good, but then there are those two out of 10 remaining. Doing its part in dealing with the bottles, Ford is diverting more than 4 million 20-oz. bottles and giving them new life as polyester carpeting in the 2012 Escape.
To ensure that the carpeting is durable enough to withstand foot traffic, materials engineers put the fibers created from the recycled bottles through a rigorous testing procedure with a machine called a “Taber 5150.” It uses two spinning weights; a carpet sample about 5 in. in diameter is placed between the two. It simulates accelerated wear. The engineers looked for “chalking,” or when the carpet fibers degrade, forming a white residue as they break apart. That is a precursor to a hole forming in the carpet. Just 10 to 15 minutes of testing equates to five or more years of normal wear and tear. When chalking occurred, the engineers discovered that adding more bottles meant a more durable material. The new carpet is being produced at automotive supplier Autoneum’s Bloomsburg, PA, plant (autoneum.com). It is backed with cast foam to help reduce road noise and fill in crevices and ridges, smoothing it and making it even more durable.
Filtration processes to make the production of gasoline, plastics and other chemicals cheaper and more energy efficient are being made faster thanks to a specialized type of molecular sieve being developed by University of Minnesota (umn.edu) researchers. They’re using a free-standing, ultrathin nanosheet film for the sieve. The film is based on zeolites, crystal-like materials with molecular-sized pores. While zeolites have been used as adsorbents and catalysts
for years, processing the materials into the extended sheets necessary to distill and purify gasoline and polymer precursors has presented a challenge. Minnesota researchers overcame this by using sound waves in a specialized centrifuge process to make carpets of the flaky crystal nanosheets with just the right thickness to efficiently separate molecules.
University of Minnesota researchers have developed a zeolite-based molecular sieve for purifying gasoline and polymer precursors.