Auto Companies Save Greenbacks by Going Green

Whether you’re a car-making giant like Subaru or a supplier to the Big Three, the automotive industry is taking serious strides toward generating zero waste. A wonderful YouTube talk and an up-close-and-personal tour of an Oregon plant both offered some insight into being more environmental in the industrial environment.

Subaru’s Story

How did Subaru begin going down the road toward generating zero waste?

Denise CooganIt all started by tipping over all the dumpsters in their plant to see what they were generating. As it turned out, there was a lot of waste which was weighed and measured by managers who were made environmentally accountable for the material, explained Denise Coogan, environmental manager at Subaru Automotive of Indiana, which manufactures the Legacy, Outback, Tribeca, and Toyota Camry.

“Those who aren’t thinking about what they’re generating in the plant, how they’re accounting for that, how they’re inventorying that material, will be left in the dust,” Coogan said.

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle

She continued with an overview of the three R’s—reduce, re-use, and recycle. Starting with reducing, the plant implemented an idea from an associate to reduce the amount of steel coil used by optimizing each run—whether it was hoods or hatches.

Moving on to re-use, Coogan’s team took something less dramatic—the Styrofoam used to pack components from Japan—and affixed a label to each container containing the used Styrofoam indicating the number of times the packaging has returned to the supplier. Some containers have made the round trip to Japan 15 times!

As for recycling, Subaru’s 3,500 associates recycle paper and soda cans as well as steel—some 25,000 tons. All told, there’s been a 50-percent reduction in waste generated at the plant since 2000.

“Waste is material that just hasn’t found a use yet,” noted Coogan, who regularly motivates associates to drum up more ideas to reduce waste. A recent treasure hunt campaign yielded 1,400 ideas from associates, who appreciate the human touch that managers can offer when they’re listening and hearing workers’ ideas.

JAE Shines

On a small but no less significant level is the work being done here in our own backyard by automotive component manufacturer JAE Oregon, which produces wiring harnesses used to deploy vehicle air bags for global giants like Honda, Toyota, GM, Chrysler, and Volvo.  JAE employs about 200 workers.

Many talk a good game but rarer are those who show how it’s really done. I enjoyed a personal tour of JAE led by Rick Mainhood from the lobby to the lavatory, from the plant floor to the parking lot. Rick is JAE’s Kaizen and 5S Coordinator.

Rick Mainhood, Kaizen and 5S coordinator at JAEWhen you tour the plant it’s evident that all the assembly areas are models of efficiency and economy—nothing but the essentials. With modest conference rooms and offices on one side of a hallway and several large, open assembly, manufacturing, plating and stamping areas, there is clearly no area, no space that doesn’t have a specific function. Nothing is random here.

“We recycle metal, plastics and cardboard, and we don’t use new material if we can use recycled material. The more we reduce waste, the more profitable we are, and the more money goes to our workers rather than being left on the floor,” said Mainhood.

Reducing waste isn’t just about material waste. Being environmental in the industrial environment also means reducing the number of steps needed to perform a job, knowing where to find tools, tracking the number of units in production, and knowing who is covering every shift and every task. If you have to think about these steps or ask a manager, then you’re wasting time and resources.

After all, if you can see from a quick glance at a production board that a particular machine is now two thirds full and will need to be refilled in 30 minutes, then you’re ahead of the game. Because if you have to go out to the storage room to get a tool, that means there is time that a machine isn’t running and cranking out product for customers waiting a thousand miles in away.

Labeling virtually every door, entrance, shelf, work area, machine, tool, office, chemical storage, and electrical appliance to the point of obsession makes an enormous difference at JAE Oregon. Even someone working a drill press has step-by-step operating instructions posted on a label where they’re easiest to read.

Given this obsession with labeling and knowing that labels tend to get worn and abused in industrial settings, Mainhood uses labeling systems from Graphic Products, Inc., including the DuraLabel Toro, which prints four-inch-wide labels and the DuraLabel 9000 which prints nine-inch-wide labels.

Though it’s doubtful that JAE’s Mainhood and Subaru’s Coogan have ever met, I’m sure both would agree that there are several good business reasons to go green, including reducing the carbon footprint and environmental impact, saving cost on materials and waste disposal, improved morale, enhanced brand and community awareness, and promotion of creativity and innovation among employees.

Other industries are already taking cues from the automotive industry. Subaru has mentored 700 companies—producing items from rocket ships to potato chips. Isn’t it time your company took further steps to lay down the ground work to be an environmentally friendly industry?