At a time when any discussion about a greener automotive industry tends to focus on electric or solar-powered cars, one car company is also focusing on greening both its products and itself. The Michigan-based Ford Motor Company is quickly becoming one of America’s leading companies when it comes to creating efficient, sustainable facilities for its operations.
Recently, Ford adjusted assembly processes to be as efficient as possible and upgraded facilities to feature advanced green technologies. By doing so, it has cut its energy use by 22 percent since 2006, and the company is setting its sights higher to cut an additional 25 percent through energy efficiency by 2016. From slowly eliminating its use of steam heating, restructuring its painting and equipment-cooling processes, and taking advantage of opportunities to use LED technology in its facilities, Ford is committed to maintaining the highest standards of green operations. “Our focus on sustainability goes back quite a few years,” says Jeff White, Ford’s energy-efficiency manager, who has helmed the automaker’s facility-greening efforts for nearly 15 years. “Our energy-efficiency group has been in existence as a formal activity for driving energy reduction since as far back as the 1980s.”
On the facilities side, White credits the company’s conversion of steam heating systems to direct-fire gas for helping to reduce energy usage for heating. Direct-fire gas heating, he says, ignites gas so it heats the building air instead of producing steam that travels through pipes, loses heat, and eventually needs to be pumped into a boiler. Steam-heating systems, he says, are only about 50 percent efficient, and in 1998, Ford shut down steam-heating at eight of its facilities in North America. “That was right before energy prices started going through the roof in 2005,” White says. “It turned out to be a huge physical edge. The business case for making these systems more efficient is really there.”
Another key to reducing energy usage was revamping its painting process. The paint shop accounts for 65 percent of the energy use at Ford’s assembly plant, so the company was anxious to find ways to make the process more efficient. Previously, Ford had put its cars through separate spray booths and ovens for the primer, base coat, and clear coat layers. With its new “three-wet” painting process, the company eliminates two ovens, allowing the primer coat to be followed directly by the base color paint, and then by the clear coat, drying it in an oven only at the very end.
At several plants, including its engine plant in Lima, Ohio, a new process was adapted for cooling the equipment that cuts and grinds materials during the machining process. At the old engine plant, oil was sprayed onto the tools to cool them off. Today, oil is applied only to the tip of the tool. “That greatly reduces the amount of oil that gets sprayed into the atmosphere,” White explains. “We’re also putting exhaust hoods close to the point of use where oil is being sprayed. . . so it’s a combination of reducing the amount of oil mist and capturing the oil mist significantly closer to the point of use. This has an impact on energy, working conditions, and the quality of the product.”
In Buffalo, New York, Ford worked with National Grid, a local utility company, to revamp its stamping facility with LED lighting; this project has reduced energy usage of a single lighting fixture from about 1,000 kilowatts to a little more than 200 kilowatts per hour. More than 1,700 fixtures were retrofitted with this project to achieve a 10 percent reduction in electric use.
LED technology, assembly processes, and hearing systems are all areas Ford will focus on as it continues its sustainability efforts. As the company continues to evaluate projects for the future, it will stay abreast of the wind, solar, and other green technologies that will be crucial to its success. For Ford, he says, the decision is simply logical. “Long ago, Bill Ford said that there has to be a business case for environmentalism. You can’t just do it to do it. We’ve found that there are very good business cases for sustainability and environmental activities that go beyond what’s expected.”