Carbon-Neutral Lifestyle Drives Molding Company
Rick Carter | July 10, 2015
Injection-molder Harbec Inc. is a leader among manufacturers, boldly showing how one company can successfully integrate sustainability in all aspects of its operation.
Two giant wind turbines spin above Harbec Inc., supplying power for the injection-molding/CNC-machining operation in Ontario, NY, some 12 miles east of Rochester. As big as the turbines are—their size makes it impossible to miss the otherwise modest-looking facility on State Route 104—they are but one piece of the sustainability picture at this forward-thinking company.
Thanks to the wind turbines, the site’s 18 microturbines, and the company’s large and growing number of sustainable initiatives, Harbec now buys only 20% of its power needs from outside sources. For a three-shift, 200-employee plant that turns out multiple millions of parts annually for customers in the aerospace, medical-device, consumer-product, telecom, and other fields, the fact tends to amaze anyone unfamiliar with this dynamic operation.
Founded in 1977 by toolmaker, inventor, army veteran, college professor, risk-taker, manufacturer and, now, sustainability leader, Bob Bechtold, Harbec is among the most advanced companies anywhere with regard to its success in sustainability. Before its green phase, the company (named for Bechtold and a former partner) built a strong reputation as a progressive innovator in its core business—prototyping, mold-making, custom injection-molding and CNC machining—by having no fear of trying new materials and technologies. Thanks to a willingness to experiment with high-tech resins and metals, and its early use of 3D printing (the company acquired its first 3D printer in the 1990s), Harbec came to be known as the company that can make it happen.
Harbec customers generated about $20 million in sales for the privately held company in 2014, turning to it for complex, intricate designs made with tough-to-mold materials, including metal. When Bechtold acted on his lifelong passion for energy efficiency, and added it to his portfolio of operational strategies, he created what has become an innovative “two-for-one” for his customers. The fact that Harbec is carbon-neutral, nearly water-neutral, and produces 80% of its own power needs means its customers automatically receive similar bragging rights simply by using Harbec-made parts in their products.
“What we do carries on in our parts,” said Bechtold. “If you’re making radios and you need plastic dials and have us build them, you just reduced the carbon footprint of your radio at no additional cost to you. We try to make people understand that there is no premium for this. If anything, it has helped us be more competitive.”
According to Bechtold and his staff, Harbec’s advanced level of sustainability distinguishes it from others that make similar claims because Harbec treats sustainability issues like a continuous-improvement project—a journey without end. “A lot of companies talk about sustainability and its virtues,” said Mark Coleman, business development manager, “but the hard part is actually putting things in place, implementing it, taking action, and making it happen. That’s where the rubber hits the road, where you see cost savings and reductions in greenhouse gases. That’s where you see productivity improvement. All those things can only be tweaked when you continuously maintain the equipment and infrastructure, and when you’re looking for those opportunities on a daily basis.”
Bechtold emphasized that sustainability is not, “one thing locked in cement. It is a living thing,” he stated. “And all of these elements have evolved amazingly well for us.”
Harbec has pursued virtually every sustainable opportunity possible at its location with more—namely solar—to come. This has often placed the company at the leading edge of energy-saving technologies, such as its microturbine-driven combined heat-and-power (CHP) system and its use of wind turbines to generate renewable energy. While these elements are still unique in manufacturing, Harbec’s first wind turbine, by contrast, went up in 2002, the second in 2012. But Bechtold said it took him time to learn how to discuss sustainability in a way that customers and lenders could understand.
“We moved here in 1987 and started doing things related to energy about 10 years later,” he said. “But I eventually learned to not say I was doing it for the environment. That was the kiss of death. I wasted so many months trying to convince people that it was good for the environment because that’s why I did it at home. But I was branding myself as a burned-out hippy or something! After beating my head against the wall, I stopped talking about the environment, and only talked about the dollars. Then along comes this phrase ‘eco-economics,’ so we latched onto that because it was exactly what we were doing. We could talk about the economics, and just kind of tickle the idea of the ecological implications. When we got this, we were able to go forward.”
Strategies on tap
Information about Harbec’s sustainable initiatives and successes occupies nearly as much space on its website (harbec.com) as information about its design and manufacturing capabilities. As a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE, Washington) Better Plant Partner, Harbec also posts some of this information with the DOE (at betterbuildingssolutioncenter/partners/harbec). A visitor to either site can have no doubt about the company’s high level of commitment to sustainability, which is built on the following key strategies:
Carbon-neutrality. This is one of Harbec’s core sustainability claims, touted on its website, promotional material, and on its shipping cartons (with a self-designed logo). Achieving this desirable state took several large investments—the microturbines, wind turbines, and others—as well as a plan to cover the lesser amount of carbon these efforts could not erase. To obtain an audit that would certify the company’s carbon-neutrality, Bechtold pursued the ISO 50001 energy-management system standard.
“ISO 50001 requires us to account for any energy usage no matter what type, whether it’s wind or natural gas or the diesel in our trucks,” said Bechtold. With Harbec’s sustainable initiatives providing 80% of the company’s energy needs, the remaining 20%—“the power produced by our natural-gas fired microturbines in our CHP plant and the carbon our vehicles produce,” said Bechtold—is offset through the purchase of carbon credits.
The company does this through a firm called Native Energy Inc., Burlington, VT (nativeenergy.com), which uses the money for Native-American-run projects in Colorado where methane that once leached from abandoned coal mines is collected and put into pipelines for distribution. “So we’re paying someone else to take care of that carbon we can’t find a way to get rid of ourselves,” said Bechtold. He added that, when/if the company does need to purchase electricity from the grid, he has stipulated that it come from green-power sources.
Water neutrality (by the end of 2015). “There is no formal definition of this that I know of,” said Bechtold, “but to us this means we only use city water for handwashing and drinking. Everything else comes from harvested water or managed water.” To reach that point, the company harvests rainwater from its parking lot and rooftops, and diverts it into an on-site 900,000-gal. pond. The pond supplies the water Harbec needs for its manufacturing operations and its heating and cooling. It also holds enough water for the plant’s fire-sprinkler system, the need for which is what started the plant on its path to water neutrality.
“After 9/11, a lot of businesses in New York state had to comply with new insurance rules,” explained Bechtold. Among them was a requirement for sprinkler systems, which the company did not have. Facing a substantial premium hike without one, Bechtold looked into using city water for a system, but learned that the city had neither the water supply nor the pressure to support one. He solved the problem by digging a retention pond on site.
“So we learned how to collect water,” said Bechtold. And with the help of consulting engineers, they also learned how to take advantage of water’s thermal advantages. “We sank several old heat exchangers to the bottom of the pond and dumped some of our thermal there,” added Bechtold. “This reduced the load on our cooling towers, which was a big revelation. The engineers determined that we save 900,000 gallons of water per year by not using the evaporative cooling towers as much.”
The pond also provides a portion of the 3.6-million gal./yr. of water that Harbec needs for production, most of which goes to cooling the molding machines. The rest meets the plant’s HVAC needs. “The equipment-cooling loop and the HVAC loop are thermal opportunities, not water opportunities,” stressed Bechtold. “I think most entities continue to look at their facility’s water consumption only as a production utility. But that utility is driven by the thermal side, which is the cooling requirement. It’s that shift in thinking in how you can attack the thermal opportunity that really presents the water-savings and energy-savings sustainable opportunity.”
Facility-level management system. Until Harbec installed an energy-management system and a series of calibrated gauges that tie into it, precise energy savings were difficult to obtain. The process remains a challenge, “because we make so many different types of parts and we have so many different disciplines under the same roof,” said Jeff Eisenhauer, Harbec’s energy systems engineer. “We’re not like a regular injection molder that runs one type of polymer. We’re constantly trying to dial in and get more detail to get a better indication of how efficient we are from an energy standpoint by department.”
According to Bechtold, the goal is to “keep track of the company’s every electrical event, 24/7. We want to do that because it adds more positives to your bottom line. When this system is fully in place and running maturely, there will be a norm for everything. So the system will basically just watch the norm, and let me know if anything goes over or under. Everything is driven by the consumption of energy.”
Energy-efficient equipment. “A long time ago, we decreed that, at the very least, every motor more than 10 horsepower would have a soft-start on it,” said Bechtold. The company’s pursuit of energy-reduction intensified when he learned that his hydraulic-powered injection-molding machines were energy hogs. “The norm in the world is hydraulic,” he said, “but we found that electric units can use 50% less energy to do the exact same job.”
This level of savings would be important to any injection molder, but is particularly so to Harbec because of the high number of changeovers it performs to accommodate low-volume customers. Though it has many high-volume parts customers, most “are into lower volume,” said Bechtold, adding that when the company used hydraulic machines exclusively, changeovers were measured “in garbage-cans full of non-conforming parts, just from the process of dialing in the machine. When we went to the electrics, our average dial-in time became six to 12 parts.”
More efficient because of their variable-frequency control, electrics contrast with hydraulics that “operate at a constant 100% potential,” said Bechtold. “If you drove a car like this machine works, you would turn it on, put your foot all the way to the floor, never let up, and use your other foot on the brake or clutch to go forward or stop.”
He added that an operating hydraulic injection-molding machine also produces a high level of heat, which is often assumed to derive from melting plastic. “Wrong!” said Bechtold. “Most of the ambient room heat comes from waste heat in the hydraulic system.”
Bechtold said he didn’t mind that when the company decided to replace its hydraulic units with electrics, the cost of the electrics was half again as much. “Because we had this eco-economic decision-making process, we knew there would be a big savings anyway. We knew that over three years, the amount of money we would save on energy would easily pay back that 50% price differential. The upside potential of decisions like this,” he added, “just keeps going.”
Energy-efficient lighting. Lighting updates have been regular occurrences at Harbec. The first large-scale change took place in 2007 when the company replaced sodium lights with T8 fluorescent bulbs and high-efficiency ballasts. This halved the operation’s annual electric-lighting bill, putting $38,000 annually to the bottom line.
But the T8s were only a stop along the way. In 2014, they were replaced by LED units, which saved the company another $18,000 on its annual electric tab. This savings, helped along by a 50% rebate from the local utility, paid for the LED project in one year. “And today,” said Bechtold, “our savings are even higher because the price of electricity has gone up.”
Sustainable building design. The plant’s 50,000-sq.-ft. footprint includes a new 17,000-sq.-ft. addition that features “everything we could learn and apply from LEED [the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design guidelines created by the U.S. Green Building Council] without being LEED certified,” said Bechtold. A highlight is the area’s radiant in-floor heating, which is accomplished by piping water through the floor that has drawn heat from the microturbines’ exhaust. The process provides all the heat needed in the new space.
The entire plant also uses skylights, which conserve its use of electric light, and uses insulated wall panels that make a complete thermal barrier from the concrete floor to the roof without pinch-points or leaks. All seams are silicone-sealed and tongue-and-grooved, which provides twice the insulation benefits of the local code requirement, according to Bechtold. The ceiling is similarly insulated to twice code requirement. A second addition in the planning stage will “copy the other one exactly,” said Bechtold.
Recycling. “We constantly strive to minimize our waste, and have done that for years,” said Bechtold. Though he believes zero waste is an unreachable goal for his company, or anyone’s, Bechtold said that the material Harbec sends to landfill is confined to office and break-room waste, and includes nothing from production. The company’s production waste stream—a complicated mix of standard molding plastics, high-tech engineering resins, and metals—is treated separately.
“‘Plastic’ is a huge word for us,” said Bechtold. “So we manage every type of material we use, and take the extra time to keep track of it.” He stated that the need for this type of process was made clear during the company’s pursuit of the ISO 14000 environmental-management standard. “We had formerly produced hundreds of tons of polymer waste a year that we never thought about until we committed to 14000 and had to quantify it. Once we did, we learned how to manage it better, first by learning how to not contaminate it.”
In typical Harbec fashion, the waste is not simply passed along. It was important to Bechtold to find other uses for it. The company now gives much of this material, including its hard-to-recycle mixed resins, to two makers of plastic lumber and a company that manufactures freeway sound barriers. “We also use this waste to make our own product,” said Bechtold, referring to the plastic digester balls Harbec manufactures for use in wastewater treatment. Placed in stainless-steel cages and submerged in wastewater, the rough-surfaced balls attract micro-organisms that naturally accelerate sewage breakdown without added chemicals or additional structures.
Green transportation fleet. “Because we pay carbon credits, we have to use the most efficient vehicles we can,” said Bechtold. As a result, the plant’s five-vehicle fleet comprises two Prius hybrids, one electric Chevrolet Volt, a fuel-efficient Mercedes BlueTEC diesel van, and a diesel hybrid truck. Noting that most of the company’s driving involves trips to Rochester and back, Bechtold ticks off some of the fleet’s impressive mpg stats: “The Volt gets 131 mpg, the Priuses about 45 each, and the large, 12-passenger diesel van gets 28.”
Sun and honey
Next on Harbec’s sustainability horizon is a solar project that will be implemented to reduce the company’s 20% energy purchase from the grid. Bechtold has already dismissed naysayers who’ve told him upstate New York is too far north to make solar viable. “I say, wake up! That’s a 20-year-old idea. Everybody knows it works even farther north than us.”
While two plans were originally considered, the idea to build a series of solar-panel-topped carports has likely beat out a plan to build a ground-based solar array beneath one of the wind turbines. “The effort required is about the same,” said Bechtold, “so it looks like we’ll go that way. And our people would then have sheltered parking spaces”—a nice perk in an area that typically receives more than four feet of snow annually.
But the field beneath the wind turbine will not sit idle. Bechtold has arranged for a local horticulturist to develop a bee population there. Noting that the company’s current xeriscaping approach to grounds maintenance—only the grass adjacent to plant buildings is trimmed—is conducive to bee colonies, Bechtold hopes to turn the entire five-acre plot under the wind turbine into a productive green space.
“It will be a combination of flowering trees by the parking lot, with the rest planted in clover and four other ground crops that bees like,” says Bechtold. “The hives will be at the far end. So we are moving toward a pleasant space,” he said, “where bees are given top priority and we get to enjoy the honey.”
There may be no better example of the value this enterprise places on—and receives from—its policy to run the most sustainable operation imaginable.