June 18, 2011
No longer a green dream, environmental stewardship is becoming an imperative for manufacturers and fabricators. Thanks to its nearly decade long efforts, Alpharetta, Ga.-based Metcam has made impressive strides toward achieving this goal.
For most manufacturing and fabrication firms, transitioning to a more sustainable operating model is no longer a green dream. Today, with the escalating cost of materials and energy and the customer good will that accompanies environmental stewardship, it is becoming a bottom-line imperative.
Yet, implementing these improvements across the board can be an elusive goal. Alpharetta, Ga.-based Metcam, a fabricator of precision sheet metal components and assemblies for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), accomplishes its environmental objectives through outreach, enthusiasm, and earnest leadership.
Beginning in 2002 and continuing today, the company's efforts demonstrate that maintaining a robust environmental policy supported at all levels of the enterprise is a practical and fully attainable goal. Its story—and its steps to success—will resonate with any company involved in manufacturing, production, or assembly.
Metcam started examining its processes and procedures with an eye toward sustainability around 2002, according to its Environmental, Health and Safety Manager Sue Max. However, the company took some of its biggest strides in 2004-2005 when it made changes to its production lines. This initiative created an opportunity to make the processes more sustainable with minimal additional cost. That's a first step Max recommends for everyone.
"Pick the low-hanging fruit," she said."These are things you are going to do anyway, but by doing them a little different, you can save money by reducing energy costs and waste or further other sustainability goals.
"If you can identify a few winners that don’t require a lot of capital, have a short time horizon, and show results early on, upper management gets excited about the impact on the bottom line," she said. "Everyone will be saying, 'This is a great idea; why didn't we do this before?' This is more effective than a three-year project that won't show results for years."
Max, an environmental sciences specialist who has been a driving force behind Metcam's efforts, also recommends creating a set of quantifiable criteria against which every suggested improvement can be evaluated. In Metcam's case, the company determined that all changes should have a payback of three years or less, a useful life of more than 10 years, and an implementation timeline of six months or less.
Another factor in Metcam's success, and one Max said is vital for any firm, is management commitment and support. Once the top brass gets excited about early successes, she noted, "They will set the tone for what they want to accomplish and will provide the ongoing support necessary for optimal results. You cannot have miscommunication from the top about the importance of the effort."
Nevertheless, she said, it's important that top management—or anyone highly important to the operation—not become too bogged down in actually managing the project. Instead, she recommends selecting individuals or a team that can connect with the rest of the operation and generate feedback in both directions regarding the value and viability of process improvements. This helps build consensus on what the company can accomplish and how to go about it.
Ideally, said Max, the leader should be someone who is passionate about sustainability (and willing to go out of their way to encourage participation) but not a key management figure. "You don't want to take someone high in the production chain and say, 'You are going to spend two weeks doing this,' or you risk disrupting current operations," notes Max.
Max says many companies underestimate the number of resources available to them to achieve their environmental goals. Metcam worked with key personnel from the Sustainability Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which recently accepted the company as a Gold Level Partner with the Partnership for a Sustainable Georgia. According to Max, the DNR suggested myriad ideas for process improvement, from parts cleaning and powder coatings to solid waste reduction.
"A strong involvement with a good organization for mentoring and technical assistance is crucial," said Max. “More of these types of organizations are sprouting up because of increasing interest in sustainability. Many of these groups provide on-site assistance and use conference calls as a means of providing outreach to their membership, so much of their help is available with little or no expense to the company."
In addition to state and regional resources, Max recommends professional groups such as the Green Manufacturers Network (www.greenmanufacturer.net), which offers training, mentorship, and Webinars where manufacturers and fabricators can go for help with their sustainability programs.
Reach is as important as depth in getting a robust effort in place. "Your efforts have to filter down to all levels, all aspects of operations," said Max, ” including the guy in the breakroom who does housekeeping." Metcam extended its outreach to all personnel in the facility and encouraged them to take their efforts outside the plant as well.
"A key objective is getting your employees involved in environmental volunteerism in the community—whatever is important to them," she noted. "It could be a stream cleanup day, or a special recycling effort. Get the word out that these are things the company supports. The more your employees become engaged and understand the benefits of sustainability, the more likely they are to bring that dedication to work."
Metcam also celebrates its accomplishments in the workplace, and always schedules something special for Earth Day—a raffle, free T-shirts, a speaker who talks to employees about integrating sustainable practices at home.
Max said it's important to have a clear and formal environmental policy that embraces all aspects of the program. For example, Metcam's environmental policy reads: "Metcam is dedicated to sound environmental stewardship through sustainable practices, continuous improvement, regulatory compliance, pollution prevention, continuous review and public transparency."
"We work with the folks on the floor to help them understand and appreciate what it means to be lean and green," Max said. "We also have weekly updates on the plant floor regarding safety or environmental issues. We encourage continuing communications. We want to hear about problems sooner rather than later, and we don't want people making changes without considering the environmental impacts."
Max recommends that firms develop an environmental management system similar to ISO 14001, even if they do not actually attain that certification. Metcam, which has been ISO 14001-certified since 2009, uses shop floor work instructions and SOPs (standard operating procedures) to detail how personnel comply with the firm's environmental policy.
“Our employees are the key to our success," Max noted. "If they aren’t onboard, your program won’t take off." Over time Metcam has found ways to make a difference in the least obvious of operations, such as changing to a zero-VOC paint stripper that has minimal impact on air quality, making it safer for the workers and better for the environment.
Max said instituting a monitoring system is also important. "You must establish the parameters you use to determine your level of sustainability. We have 20 performance factors we monitor that could have an impact if they are not effectively controlled on a day-to-day basis. Any unexpected result can lead us to a developing problem, allowing us to take timely, corrective action."
For firms just starting down the path to "lean and green," these suggestions may seem intimidating. Max said baby steps can get companies on a solid footing faster than they might expect. "Talk to your operational staff about the effort and where they think improvements could be made," she said. Your best results will come from using cross-functional teams to identify potential projects throughout the entire organization.
"Take the information you accumulate; decide where you can make significant improvements; and prioritize it according to what is the most beneficial for the company," said Max. "First, work on areas where you have regulatory responsibilities, then add those projects with the best return on investment [ROI]. Don't forget to account for financial incentives, such as tax credits and rebates, that effectively increase ROI as well."
In Metcam's case, replacing 600+ fluorescent lighting fixtures and eliminating metal halide lights (initial investment was $90,000) paid for itself in 1.1 years. Similarly, replacement of an aging roof with an insulated roofing membrane system (initial investment, $120,000) offered a payback of 2.0 years, and replacement of plant HVAC systems with energy-efficient units/control system (initial investment, $160,000) paid for itself in 2.75 years.
"You may have to put some resources into a project, especially upfront, and you'll need to consider what steps are reasonable in terms of business demands," said Max. Always a pragmatist, she professionally weighs every decision not for its "feel-good" factor, but rather for its ability "to improve operational processes and create cost savings."
In summation, Max pointed out, "Moving to a model of sustainable manufacturing and environmental stewardship can be a real benefit to your bottom line, and it can make a company more profitable and successful in an ever more competitive world. So, why would you not want to do it?"
Sue Max joined Metcam as its environmental, health and safety manager in September 2008. Max focuses on environmental compliance, employee health and safety, environmental management system implementation, ISO 14001 implementation, and workers’ compensation. She holds a master's degree in public health and is a certified hazardous materials manager.
For more information about the company, visit www.metcam.com.