How Inefficient are Modern Manufacturing Methods?
April 21, 2009
New analysis from MIT has uncovered some alarming figures that indicate manufacturing methods are "spectacularly inefficient in their use of energy and materials." It has become obvious that nearly every aspect of future manufacturing operations will have to cut its energy consumption, if not for environmental stewardship then for cutting costs to stay competitive. Manufacturers use nearly a third of the energy consumed in the United States. Although today's golden age of end-to-end process efficiency suggests that modern-day manufacturing methods are more efficient and sustainable than ever before, new analysis from MIT captured the energy use of 20 major manufacturing processes. The report, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology
Their production, which uses some of the same manufacturing processes as microchips but on a large scale, is escalating dramatically. The inherent inefficiency of current solar panel manufacturing methods could drastically reduce the technology's lifecycle energy balance that is, the ratio of the energy the panel would produce over its useful lifetime to the energy required to manufacture it.However, the MIT researchers acknowledged some limiting research factors. Although they gathered data "from heavy-duty old fashioned industries like a cast-iron foundry, all the way up to semiconductors and nanomaterials," the researchers did not analyze production of pharmaceuticals or petroleum, and they only looked primarily at processes where electricity was the primary energy source. How does this research hold up against the car industry? Let's look at an American automaker, whose management by proxy would suggest having made some questionable strategic choices over the past decade. That doesn't mean they aren't keeping a close eye on energy consumption, though. Ford Motor Co., for example, recently announced
- Updated heating systems at many manufacturing facilities by replacing outmoded steam powerhouses with digitally controlled direct-fired natural gas air handlers;
- Upgraded paint process systems including booth air handling and improved emission controls; and
- Continued development of a process that turns paint fumes into electricity, a painting process that significantly reduces the footprint and energy use of paint booths, and zirconium oxide pretreatment that uses less energy to inhibit surface corrosion.
The bottom line is that "new processes are huge users of materials and energy," [Gutowski says. Because some of these processes are so new, "they will be optimized and improved over time," he says. But as things stand now, over the last several decades as traditional processes such as machining and casting have increasingly given way to newer ones for the production of semiconductors, MEMS and nano-materials and devices, for a given quantity of output "we have increased our energy and materials consumption by three to six orders of magnitude."John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, last month called developing new energy technologies to improve efficiency and reduce carbon emissions