At NSK, ‘Low Friction’ Equals Sustainability

EP Editorial Staff | May 28, 2012


The Japan-based bearing maker equates the low-friction, energy-saving qualities of its products with its aggressive campaign to cut waste and pollution. Its NSK Americas group is a strong part of the team.

Led by President and CEO 
Brian Lindsay, 
NSK Americas, headquartered in 
Ann Arbor, MI, oversees 2500 workers at production plants and support facilitiesin the U.S., Canada, Mexico,Brazil and Argentina.

At the back of NSK’s 2011 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Report, the Tokyo-based bearing manufacturer includes a sampling of opinions about the company’s CSR efforts from some of its 26,000 global employees. Asked to finish this sentence, “Our CSR is…,” their comments range from lighthearted (“Our CSR is to share delight”) to thoughtful (“Our CSR is an activity which unifies a company and employees with its environmental goals”). One makes a simple connection between the company’s fundamental product mission and its CSR goals: “They are about ensuring that our products reduce friction, which means less wasted energy.”

That last comment captures the essence of a company best known for its automotive bearings (but also produces other automotive components and linear motion products) and whose value proposition includes the impact its main products have—from design through manufacture and use—on the world at large. The statement also gives dimension to the plant-level efforts that drive the company’s environmental gains.

In Japan, for example (in fiscal year 2010), these gains include a waste-recycling rate of 99.3% (92.3% outside of Japan), CO2 emission reductions of 5.8% from FY06 levels and the creation of 16 new environmentally friendly products and technologies. The CSR Report also includes a third-party opinion of these accomplishments, which states that they have brought NSK “nearly to a first stage” of environmental and sustainable maturity. The opinion, offered by a member of the Japan Research Institute, continues with the suggestion that NSK is ready to take the next step, such as “creating a vision of the future world.”

NSK in the USA

Franklin, Indiana…
NSK employees at the company’s seven U.S.-based production sites believe they are already hard at work on that vision. The recycling rate at the corporation’s Franklin, IN, plant for example, “is probably as close to 100% as anyone could be, 99.9% easily,” says Kevin Dodds, Engineering Manager and Environmental Team Leader at the facility, a producer of automotive hub and transmission bearings. The 20-year-old plant was relatively efficient from the start regarding sustainable benchmarks, but in the past decade undertook a new push in this direction. One of its first steps was to become certified to the international environmental standard, ISO 14000, in 2002.

Dodds’ unfamiliarity with ISO 14000 at that time didn’t stop the plant manager from asking him to lead the certification effort. “As an electrical engineer, I didn’t think this applied to what I would normally be doing,” he says, “but I took it on and over the last 10 years have gotten to really like it.” He credits the plant-wide cooperation required to obtain the certification for opening the plant’s culture to the possibilities and importance of sustainable actions.


This new NSK production equipment uses high-powered air jets to remove excess rust-prevention oil from balls that are being packed into bearings.

“ISO 14000 certification is not something the cross-functional team can just go out and do,” he says. “If you don’t have everyone’s participation, you can’t meet the requirements.” Like those of other ISO standards, ISO 14000 requirements are a framework for a management system. To choose and define the tasks needed to create the framework at Franklin, plant workers had to think about the plant’s environmental issues in a new way. Existing systems had to be measured and benchmarked. Existing procedures—processes, byproducts, what was shipped out, what was taken in—had to be redefined with regard to
the environmental impact of each. Certification (achieved in 10 months and before NSK Americas’ other operations followed suit) has meant that “now everybody in the plant has certain responsibilities, which are continuously reviewed,” says Dodds. “Ask anyone on the floor what their responsibility is with ISO 14000, and they’ll explain it to you.”

Working toward ISO 14000 certification took time to gain momentum, but not because the plant’s 250 employees were unaware of its importance. “They understood the big picture,” says Dodds, but the from-scratch benchmarking process could not be rushed. Once the benchmarking showed them where they stood, however, “people could see that with very little effort, positive results occur. Then it was easy to get people motivated and keep them involved.”

Landfill waste and recycling were two areas where the Franklin plant had rapid success. Before certification, it had landfilled up to 38 tons of waste each month, “which was even a surprise to me,” says Dodds. The first year after certification, this amount was halved, and has continued to drop ever since. “When you slap that up in front of everybody and they see the charts, they feel good about it and feel a part of it.”

The plant’s focus on recycling was inspired by “a corporate initiative to get to a 98% recycling ratio,” he says, “which meant that the goal for any byproduct was to have 98% of it reused or recycled.” Even cafeteria and miscellaneous paper waste, which once accounted for 2% of the plant’s total waste material, is now reused by a local company, which incinerates the waste to generate steam for the downtown Indianapolis steam loop. “And they have pollution controls in place,” says Dodds.


A newly designed spindle for grinding parts uses grease instead of oil mist for lubrication, reducing compressed air needed for the process by 75%.

The only reasons the plant now falls just short of 100%, says Dodds, is that the mop-water used to clean production floors—which is sent out for separate treatment—may contain solids that require landfill disposal, and a small amount of inert ash remains from the incineration of cafeteria and paper waste.

The Franklin plant’s attention to sustainable detail also includes refinements to manufacturing processes and building systems, such as:

  • Installation of a reverse osmosis system that enabled the plant to eliminate a deionized water system requiring the use of hazardous chemicals.
  • Reduction in kerosene usage for parts cleaning.
  • Decreased electrical usage from switching to electronic ballasts, installing more-efficient lighting and eliminating air-system leaks.

What’s next for Franklin’s sustainability program? “Training and awareness,” says Dodds, “and making sure everybody is on board.” More system refinements are on the agenda, too, along with “continued reduction of utilities and VOCs, maintaining compliance and working toward the total elimination of pollution.”

Dyersburg, Tennessee…
NSK’s sprawling 200,000 sq.-ft. plant in Dyersburg, TN, manufactures steering columns and electronic power-steering systems for the major Japanese automakers. This not-quite-five-year-old facility is, like all NSK Americas’ operations, ISO 14000-certified. Both new and newly enlarged (an expansion completed in January doubled its size), the site is poised to take NSK’s sustainability numbers higher.

“As a green-field plant, there’s an opportunity to do a little better than your sister facilities,” says Arlene Brown, Dyersburg’s Safety & Environmental Manager and Human Resources Manager. Dyersburg started with a single assembly line, she says, and now includes machining, heat-treating, robotic welding and soldering, all of which raise its environmental impact. Having been at the plant since it opened, however, Brown says she is confident the Dyersburg culture can meet new challenges.

“We started immediately recycling paper and cardboard to get that culture in the very beginning,” she says. “Then we added plastics. And when we started machining, we recycled aluminum, steel, used oils and used coolants.” The plant also recycles plastic bottles from cafeteria vending machines, gloves (which are laundered and returned) and shop towels. “The only thing we don’t recycle is general paper trash,” says Brown, and they’re working on that. When general trash is recycled, the plant’s recycling rate will match that of the Franklin facility: nearly 100%. Motion-sensor lighting, touchless faucets and upgraded lighting in the plant’s new addition, along with the commonizing of coolants and reduction of air-system losses, all contribute to shrinking the plant’s carbon footprint.

According to Brown, a second expansion at Dyersburg is planned, and it’s expected that another full-time Safety & Environmental person will be hired. This individual will report to Brown, allowing her to focus on the personnel issues that another expansion will bring.

Brown knows more growth will mean more training and more chances for her team to sharpen their environmental edge. As a new plant, she says, “We’ve had to dig a little deeper to find things to go after,” an effort that has led her team to a stronger focus on internal auditing and training, as well as on programs that spread the word outside the plant.

“The education of our people and broadening the spectrum to assist the community by sharing things we’ve done here” are a big part of ongoing efforts at Dyersburg, notes Brown. The plant already celebrates Earth Day “in a big way,” she notes, and conducts other outreach efforts that include “educating people about specific things they can do at home” as well as participation in county-wide recycling drives where the plant helps its workers and local citizens properly dispose of used computers, batteries, used oil and other materials.

As new ways to save energy and cut waste become harder to find at Dyersburg, Brown is clearly unafraid to continue the search, regardless of where it leads. “I plan to take my environmental team dumpster diving,” she says, “just to see what kinds of things we still have in there.”


NSK Main Initiatives to Reduce CO2 Emissions: Plants and Distribution (click to enlarge)

Sustainability is the ‘S’ in NSK
NSK’s environmental goals originate in Japan, but it’s up to individual plants to determine the strategies that work best for each and pursue them successfully. This does not happen in a vacuum. Thanks to tireless workers like Marcia Fournier, Manager of Environmental Health and Safety, based at the NSK Americas headquarters in

Ann Arbor, MI, all NSK Americas plants—the seven U.S. operations and one in Brazil—are regularly updated on each other’s environmental best practices and lessons learned.

“I travel extensively to visit all of our facilities,” says Fournier. “And the environmental managers at each site have a dotted line to me for communication, so we’re very active with each plant. Next week, for example, I’m going to Brazil to support their ISO 14000-recertification audit. The biggest part of my job,” she notes, “is the support mechanism: raising the awareness, raising the education, working with changing the culture of the sites to ensure that the sites that were new to ISO 14000 understood the benefits associated with it and to show people what they accomplished. And for sites that have a mature process, we keep the momentum going.”

A 10-year NSK veteran, Fournier brings her formal training as a chemist to her job, along with 17 years of experience working in a steel mill. “Even though I was intended to be working in the lab [at NSK],” she says, “we saw there was a lot of activity outside the lab that needed a chemist’s attention, such as chemical management and manag-ing environmental needs specific to chemicals.” So her position “grew over the years,” as did NSK’s emphasis on the environment. Today, each NSK Americas site has an environmental management rep, most of whom have an assistant, explains Fournier. With the encouragement and the approval of NSK, these leaders meet on a regular basis to sharpen their environmental skills.

“We get everyone together at headquarters or a different facility twice a year and we talk about any difficulties people may have, we talk about best practices at their facilities, we share ideas and we support each other regarding managing KPIs.” Some meetings are special events, such as a recent gathering Fournier calls a “week-long environmental boot camp” conducted by a third party. “We made the investment to ensure everyone had a baseline knowledge of our environmental requirements,” she says. Team meetings sometimes involve benchmarking, such as a recent one that involved a plant near NSK’s Franklin facility. “We benchmarked that one to see how they manage their environmental targets,” recalls Fournier, “and we took some of their ideas.” One of these was to join EPA’s WasteWise program, which, she says, “is what gives us our sustainability numbers with regard to how many trees and how much water we’ve saved.”

Fournier and her colleagues say the regular strategy meetings reflect the heightened emphasis on sustainability within NSK Americas. The emphasis coincided with a recent influx of new management  members that, she says, brought in the concept of accountability,  as well as reporting, sharing and analyzing  data.

The President and CEO of NSK Americas, Brian Lindsay, (appointed in 2009) was part of the new team. He is clearly committed to the company’s continuous improvement in sustainability. As he describes it, “I understand that environmental stewardship needs a focus, and part of that focus is to create and establish a position within the Americas that environmental excellence is paramount.”

With 35 years of experience working in and running industrial operations around the globe, Lindsay says he’s happy to be “proactively seeking out the right thing to do [environmentally] rather than focused on avoiding doing the wrong thing.” He has already overseen the complete revision of NSK Americas’ environmental policy to make it function as a road map to excellence that also carries enough weight to allow the company to make what he calls the “right” environmental actions, even in challenging economic times. “It will surprise some skeptics who believe the cost of environmental stewardship has no financial benefits,” says Lindsay, “that it is possible to turn this perceived cost challenge into a win/win for the company and the environment.”

As NSK Americas expands its sustainability impact, working to bring suppliers to the same level will receive more focus, as will efforts to find more environmentally friendly ways to manufacture their products. “With the rules and regs coming down so fast from all over the world,” says Fournier, “there are new chemicals added to lists for which we need to find alternatives. We need to make sure we are compliant on a global basis.”

Fortunately for NSK Americas, and the rest of the world, Fournier is unfazed by the relentless pace such efforts demand. “I love what I do,” she says. “The support I get in education and from management is outstanding. And if we do have a problem,” she adds, “we deal with it and we fix it.” MT





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