Driving Sustainability Through Products and Practice
Rick Carter | September 28, 2014
Mitsubishi Electric Automation’s energy-saving solutions help the diverse Mitsubishi Group—and many of its customers—meet far-reaching sustainability goals.
Diversification is common among today’s large corporations, but Japan-based Mitsubishi Group ranks among the most diverse. This 42-company conglomerate is involved in more areas—shipbuilding, mining, construction, telecom, electronics and oil & gas for starters—than you may realize. In addition to the many products you likely do know Mitsubishi Group companies for—televisions, construction equipment and automobiles (the Lancer, Outlander and all-electric I-MiEV models are theirs)—the Group also includes the globally recognized brands Nikon (cameras) and Kirin (beer).
But diversification does not mean lack of focus, especially when it comes to sustainability, and especially for Mitsubishi Electric, a core Mitsubishi Group company. Founded in 1921, and known today for its household electronics, UPS systems and photovoltaic (PV) panels, among other products, Mitsubishi Electric has chosen its upcoming 100th anniversary as the focal point for a comprehensive environmental management strategy it created called Environmental Vision (EV) 2021. The holistic, long-term goal of EV 2021 is to ensure Mitsubishi Electric is in a position to “make positive contributions to the earth and its people through technology and action.” It proposes the company do this through the use of “wide-ranging and sophisticated technologies as well as the promotion of proactive and ongoing actions by our employees.”
Three key EV 2021 goals are to:
• Create a Low-Carbon Society—by reducing CO2 emissions from product usage 30% from 2001 levels; reducing total CO2 emissions from production by 30% from 1999 levels; and reducing CO2 levels from power generation.
• Create a Recycling-Based Society—by promoting the 3Rs—reduce, reuse and recycle—and to reduce resource inputs.
• Respect Biodiversity—by ensuring harmony with nature in business activities and teaching employees the importance of biodiversity and fostering environmental awareness.
Mitsubishi Electric’s diverse product output allows it to work toward these goals in several ways on many levels. By designing and building products that operate efficiently with minimal energy use and products that help system operators monitor and reduce energy use, the company is positioned to help end-users of many types save energy—at home, at work and in the plant.
Sustainability in the plant
Saving energy at work (commercial facilities) and in the plant are key areas of focus for Mitsubishi Electric Automation (MEAU), a sub-group of Mitsubishi Electric formed in 1997. Headquartered in Vernon Hills, IL, MEAU produces various automation products, including programmable logic controllers, variable frequency drives, operator interfaces, motion control systems, computer numerical controls and industrial robots. The 233,000-sq.-ft. headquarters facility specializes in one of the company’s top-selling energy-monitoring devices called EnergyPAQ, a complete, configurable “out of the box” solution for the monitoring and control of all energy types.
EnergyPAQ and other Mitsubishi Electric energy-monitoring products “have had the largest growth of all our product categories,” says Sloan Zupan, MEAU Sr. Product Manager. The group of energy-saving products includes “everything from standalone power meters to those that are networked, to ones that reside right inside a PLC rack,” he says, “so these are highly integrated solutions. Our power meters can then have their information accessed by an FTP server or they can log their information to a database. More commonly, they use Web-server technology to access reports that can be accessed from our ecoWebServer. This really improves the visibility of where you are in your conservation efforts.”
The accumulated energy data can quickly indicate, for example, which equipment consumes the most energy, and where investment might be made to shed load or reduce peak demand charges. Once manufacturing knows how much energy its various lines consume, a ratio can be created that shows energy consumption versus product output. “The manufacturing engineer can now make changes to the equipment and measure the effectiveness and monetary value of those changes in real time,” says David Kaley, MEAU’s Industry Marketing Manager.
In keeping with its EV2021 goals, MEAU’s energy-monitoring products are used in all Mitsubishi Electric manufacturing operations, many of which are in Japan and China. The products are also installed at Vernon Hills, where that facility’s roughly 250, single-shift employees focus on custom assembly of engineered, automated systems for customers in North America. “The way we deploy the [energy-saving] technology here is primarily in our facility management and lighting management,” says Kaley, who makes the point that saving energy has value regardless of a facility’s size or purpose. “You don’t have to be a big building to gain financial benefit for energy reduction,” he says. “Here, we do a scaled-down version of what we do in larger facilities.”
Zupan says MEAU has had “incredible results” with its energy-monitoring offerings, thanks in part to their universality. “Whether you’re industrial or commercial, these products can be used in the same way,” he says. “We find a lot of customers are interested in energy conservation. Maybe they’re changing direct-drive motors to variable frequency drives or they’re changing lighting fixtures to lower wattages, though these are now pretty elementary tactics,” he says. “What we find more manufacturing customers trying to do,” he says, “is understand the cost of energy per part made, and compare it from one line to another, one plant to another or one shift to another, and try to find waste throughout the processes. It’s not just about improving the visibility of what you’re currently consuming energy-wise,” he notes, “but, rather, pinpointing areas that need improvement in people, processes, operations, materials and in maintenance.”
Regarding maintenance, Zupan acknowledges that while many operations, particularly smaller ones, still tend to “fix after failure,” he sees more coming to understand the value of predictive techniques. “And while many of our factory automation products tell you when they’re about to fail, one of the easiest ways to predict that is to monitor energy,” he says. “When you start to see an irregular increase in consumption, it’s a great trigger for maintenance to further diagnose what has changed in the process.”
Zupan points to two Mitsubishi Electric products—AX Energy and AX Facility—that can be used in tandem to provide a complete overview of a facility’s energy consumption and costs. “AX Energy is a visualization package that looks at the cost of energy based on an ISA 95 [the international standard for interfaces between enterprise and control systems] model of a plant’s facilities, so you can really understand where energy is used, by plant, by line or by work cell.” The information is automatically collected from an equipment-mounted EnergyPAQ, which has been programmed with utility-rate information.
AX Facility is more about predictive maintenance. “This product aggregates data from many different sources, one of which is energy-monitoring devices,” says Zupan. As equipment runs through its various cycles, including uptime operation along with various problems, failures and other issues, “the software starts to understand characteristics within a process before a failure takes place,” says Zupan. “This way, you can start to automate the workflow of scheduling downtime to service a machine so production isn’t affected. The tools are here today that five years ago were not,” he adds. “Now we can really help people achieve both their sustainability objectives and maximize their uptime.”
Meeting the low-tech requirements
While MEAU has a leg up on sustainability due to its product offerings, the Vernon Hills facility must pursue the full range of lower-tech sustainability initiatives, like recycling, to meet Mitsubishi Electric’s EV 20121 goals. While not yet a zero-waste facility (like the company’s I-MiEV vehicle-assembly operation in Bloomington, IL), Vernon Hills has successfully met several significant waste challenges.
“We generate a lot of electronic waste like printed circuit boards, motors and other old stuff that’s come in for repair,” says Bob Baker, Facilities Maintenance Supervisor. But he calls the estimated 1000 to 1500 lbs. per month of electronic waste the facility generates “a wash in terms of cost because we did a lot of shopping around for recycling companies and actually get paid for much of it.” He describes the company that takes MEAU’s electronic waste as “amazing” in its ability to find uses for this eclectic mix of materials. The recycler’s waste-to-new-product output includes stone-like countertops and house trim, along with bulk filler material that’s added to concrete and roadbeds. “This company recycles 99.99% of what goes in their door,” says Baker, and provides documentation for everything. “The only thing they can’t recycle is what they sweep off the floor,” he says, “so we’re confident with them.”
Paper and cardboard are entirely recycled at MEAU, says Baker, as are “all plastic packaging, bubble wraps and Saran wraps. Steel, too. We split up everything into containers in the back,” he adds, “and recycle everything we can.”
MEAU still has three difficult-to-recycle items: wood pallets, food waste from the company cafeteria, and Styrofoam. The company chooses to reuse “as many wood pallets as we can,” says Baker, who adds that if the facility’s Styrofoam waste increases, it would make sense to send it to “a sister company in California that grinds it into pellets that are used to make hockey pucks.” But food waste is the hard part. Baker speculates that the Vernon Hills facility could more easily reach zero-waste status if not for this waste stream, which he says represents “a challenging new world of separation,” thanks largely to cafeteria paper waste and pure food waste.
A 24-year MEAU veteran, Baker has played a key role in the building’s sustainable evolution. “We’ve been here since 1997,” he says, when the building was built to take advantage of relaxed U.S. manufacturing rules about the percentages of product that could be produced in the States by foreign-based companies. Because energy-efficiency was less of a priority at that time, Baker has been making regular updates at the site. Easy fixes like lighting upgrades were made years ago, he says, when T20 bulbs were replaced with the more efficient T8s. Three-bulb fixtures were also reduced to two bulbs. This move not only cut energy use, says Baker, but the T8 bulbs are believed to have reduced absenteeism because their daylight-style light causes less worker fatigue.
Baker has also updated plumbing fixtures (to touch-free faucets and low-flow toilets and urinals), motors, drives and the facility’s compressed air system. Next up is solar, albeit more for show right now than practical use.
“We’re doing a demonstration unit for our products in collaboration with Mitsubishi Electric PV in California,” says Baker. “The panels will be in front of the building by the main door. There will be an array of eight on a single mast and we’ll have it tied in with our EnergyPAQ monitoring system.” A panel in the Vernon Hills showroom will monitor the power coming from the solar panels, which is expected to match the amount needed to power everything in the showroom. “Not directly, because the power will simply go to the grid,” notes Baker. “But the amount will be equal to what the showroom draws.”
The solar-demonstration project (scheduled to begin construction late last month) resulted from previous research undertaken to determine the feasibility of converting the entire Vernon Hills facility to solar power. The idea was deemed unworkable when calculations showed that the large number of panels needed would have required significant roof upgrades, thus extending the payback period beyond acceptable levels. “This is something that needs to be considered when a building is being built,” says Baker.
But it’s hoped the solar demonstration will enlighten MEAU customers and Vernon Hill visitors about the power of solar and the level of expertise Mitsubishi Electric can provide in guiding a solar project. Zupan notes that the Japanese culture’s strong support for energy conservation—a key driver of Mitsubishi Electric’s EV 2021 strategy—has only increased since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. “This really created a strain on their electrical system,” he says, “and companies had to adapt very quickly to changing demand requirements.”
Mitsubishi Electric knows that, even without such deadly impetus, large power users everywhere face similar circumstances that its design and manufacturing teams can help solve.
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