Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants a Green New Deal. President Trump wants more oil and coal. The fluid power industry, like most companies and consumers, is caught in between. Whether you’re a fervent environmentalist or believe climate change is all a hoax, however, the business merits of sustainability are important regardless of the tug-of-war in Washington, according to MIT engineering professor Yossi Sheffi. In his book, “Balancing green: When to embrace sustainability in a business (and when not to),” he offers a pragmatic take on how businesses of all sizes can satisfy the competing demands of profitability and sustainability.
One business rationale for embracing sustainability is simply reducing risk, he said. For instance, the rising influence of government regulations, lawsuits (including retroactive actions) and customer concerns about possible impacts create economic incentives for “good” environmental behavior.
Closer to home, manufacturers can opt to install energy-efficient lighting, improve HVAC equipment and controls, and move to more energy-efficient machines and processes. Such changes often produce sizeable savings with just modest upgrades.
Perhaps most important, engineering practices can markedly affect environmental impact across the full product life cycle. Design, by its very nature, involves compromises among competing objectives such as cost, features, performance, quality and manufacturability. Engineers should add sustainability to that list.
In the fluid power world, companies can reduce environmental impact by changing the products themselves. Redesigns can improve flow passages in pumps and valves that reduce losses. High-efficiency hydraulic fluids have proven to cut power consumption in excavators and injection-molding machines. Electronic controls and variable-speed drives better manage system flow and pressure. Cutting extraneous weight from castings can improve fuel efficiency in mobile equipment.
In terms of power density, moving to higher pressures usually means smaller components that weigh less and need less material — with no loss in performance. And look to lower user impact. Compressors are one example where power costs make up around 70% of total life costs. Energy-efficient versions can generate huge savings, even though the sticker price might be higher.
Finally, design for recycling. That includes not only the materials of construction, but whether a product can be readily disassembled. It also might mean changes in business relationships with distributors and customers, to ensure that recyclable products are, in fact, recycled.
Sustainability initiatives can have complex impacts on product attributes, use and disposal. Even sustainability involves trade-offs. A bioplastic hose might reduce the carbon footprint, but if it fails quicker and can’t be recycled, then it might be worse in the end.
Many companies are starting to address the changing business landscape surrounding climate change, said Sheffi. While some do so because it is “the right thing to do,” most want to save money and take advantage of new green opportunities. That requires buy-in from upper management to foster a corporate culture around sustainability and encourage employees to create or support environmental initiatives.
That mindset can also give companies a leg up on less-enlightened rivals in attracting the best and brightest personnel. Surveys show that a reputation for social and environmental responsibility increases a company’s attractiveness to potential and existing employees, especially for millennials who are entering the workforce. Such companies attract a larger pool of applicants and thereby gain better employees, and offer a competitive advantage because superior employees create superior returns.