OSU Gives CEOs a New Tool for Helping to Make Sustainable Factory Decisions

U.S. manufacturing CEOs are coming under more pressure than ever today to apply sustainability filters when they build new plants, or refurbish or expand old ones. And more business chiefs bring internal motivations to their rising consideration of not only environmental but also local economic and social impacts of these decisions.

So engineers at Oregon State University, funded by Boeing and a state-level initiative, are helping them out with a new “sustainable development methodology” that will assist manufacturing CEOs and the designers and manufacturing engineers who work for them, carefully consider all the ramifications of their design decisions and evaluate the different ways a product could be built before it ever hits the assembly line.

The new methodology incorporates “unit process modeling” and a technique called “life-cycle inventory” to quantify a set of sustainability metrics and ask real-world questions. Should the product use a different material? Would running the production line faster be worth the extra energy used or impact on worker health and safety? How can scrap and waste be minimized? And, which design would generate the least greenhouse gas emissions?

“With careful analysis, we can identify ways to determine which approach may have the least environmental impact, lowest cost, least waste, or other advantages.”

“There’s a lot of demand by consumers, workers and companies who want to make progress on the sustainability of products and manufacturing processes,” said Karl Haapala, an associate professor in the OSU College of Engineering. “There’s usually more than one way to build a part or product. With careful analysis, we can identify ways to determine which approach may have the least environmental impact, lowest cost, least waste, or other advantages that make it preferable to a different approach.”

While some manufacturers have already applied a rigorous sustainability philosophy to their new factories, the OSU researchers noted that interest is increasing. There is a general evolution of the manufacturing community toward more sustainable factory design because of the growing scarcity of water resources, strains on conventional energy resources, human health problems in the workplace and other issues that can be linked to traditional results of factory design.

“With current tools, you can analyze various aspects of an operation one at a time, like the advantages of different materials, transportation modes, energy used, or other factors,” Haapala said. “It’s much more difficult to consider all of them simultaneously or come out with a reasonable conclusion about which approach is best.”

In fact, the researchers found, the challenge is how to consider the overall well-being of employees, customers and the community, as well as specific factors such as the environmental footprint of a design or process, all while staying competitive with rivals and producing a quality product.

“You may make value judgments about what aspect of sustainability is most important to you,” Haapala said of manufacturing chiefs using the new tool, but they can understand “the [sustainability] trade-offs alongside other aspects of the manufacturing process.”

And clearly, in an era of growing primacy of sustainability thinking, such tradeoffs are becoming a crucial consideration for manufacturing CEOs.


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