Product longevity keeps facilities sustainable

RMIT University’s Abbas Mohajerani researches how biosolids can be used in brick manufacturing.

The circular economy encompasses many aspects of a businesses that can be changed to improve environmental impacts and create a more profitable business. While creating and highlighting change by promoting that a company uses renewable energy and environmentally friendly materials is one way to show a company cares about sustainability, ensuring the longevity of equipment used in a manufacturing facility can be just as important.

Companies, such as Atlas Copco Compressors, are helping businesses’ equipment last longer, thus saving them money and minimising waste. A McKinsey and Company report, Mapping the Benefits of a Circular Economy, highlighted that the circular economy is a reliable way for industries to increase their profitability while reducing their dependence on natural resources.

McKinsey recognised several potential circular economy activities that could improve performance and reduce costs. These are shifting to renewable energy and materials (regenerate), promoting the sharing of products or otherwise prolonging product life spans through maintenance and design (share), improving product efficiency and removing waste from supply chains (optimise), keeping components and materials in closed loops through remanufacturing and recycling (loop), delivering goods and services virtually (virtualise), and replacing old materials with advanced renewable ones or applying new technologies such as 3-D printing (exchange).

Atlas Copco Australia Compressor Technique business line manager, Jeff Treble, said small changes and replacements can have a positive effect on companies wanting longevity from their products.

“We are maximising the uptime of the compressors for customers by replacing parts under a structured preventative maintenance program. This ensures they have a long life cycle.

“There are components that have a short life time and need to be replaced. A minor component that can be replaced is an easy fix, but if it’s a major component it can cause a major catastrophe,” said Treble.

“Everything can be repaired, but the cost to repair a major component could be more than buying a new machine.” By offering ongoing service and using genuine parts, Atlas Copco helps ensure that products last as long as possible.

Atlas Copco has featured in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index several times – recognising its commitment to being one of the top sustainable companies.

“Environmental aspects are extremely important for Atlas Copco. Sustainable productivity is one of our core values,” said Treble.

He suggested that companies use genuine parts and implement a thorough preventative maintenance plan to help machinery last longer – boosting their circular economy activities.

“There are plenty of pirate manufacturers in the market. The difference is we know those components have been tested with our compressors. The reliability of those components can be affected by quality and design of those materials.

“Using a non-genuine filter can cause disruption to your air flow. There are current components that fail if they are not genuine. They can increase the chance of a pressure drop. For every one bar of pressure drop, you lose seven per cent of energy savings,” said Treble. “That is significant.”

He said working with customers to ensure they have the right equipment and know how to work with that equipment is important. Through research and development (R&D), Atlas Copco Compressors is able to ensure it provides the most efficient products to the market.

“R&D is so important to our customers. We know the life expectancy of the components through all the testing we do.”

The company also implements preventative maintenance plans, which Treble said was a top pritority for Atlas Copco Compressors and it should be at the top of the list for other companies.

“Preventative maintenance servicing is 100 per cent the way that you should ensure longevity. It comes down to making sure the compressor is in the right environment.

“For example, a hot, dusty environment would require more servicing than a cool, clear environment. The better quality the air is, the better quality we can filter the air.”

But, Treble said that even if a compressor is in a dusty environment, such as a mine, there are ways to minimise damage, for instance housing the compressor in a sheltered location.

Smart factories for sustainable future
Implementing smart solutions for a manufacturing facility also fits within circular economy activities.

Realise Potential founder and industry expert John Broadbent said with smart factories, manufacturers can see what’s going on in their production process, anywhere, anytime. “This helps with recall prevention and eliminates incorrect product being distributed. It means you can notify your customers about any breakdowns that are going to affect production. It improves the efficiency of production so you save money and you can get more capacity out of your existing equipment. The big one I’m seeing at the moment is reduced waste to landfill.”

Broadbent, who is a speaker at the AUSPACK Business and Industry Conference, has more than 40 years’ experience in manufacturing. The last 20 of these have been dedicated to helping businesses of all sizes, use smart factory concepts. He’s seen first-hand the positive change these investments have made, both on profitability, longevity and culture.

By not implementing smart and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, companies can unknowingly be creating a loss and waste in their facilities as their machinery can become outdated.

“I see organisations struggling with equipment they bought overseas that’s not ‘open architecture’, so when they want to become a smart factory they can’t connect to that piece of equipment. They must buy equipment where they can access the source code, because if they can’t extract the information they need, they’re unable to then feed into machine learning or any artificial intelligence platforms,” said Broadbent.

Switching to sustainable materials
While smart factories and preventive maintenance solutions that help machines last longer are creating more sustainable facilities, companies can implement change by using sustainable materials with a new twist. One academic, who specialises in using biosolids to replace more labour-intensive and unsustainable products in bricks, said companies often steer clear of alternative solutions when they could be seeking help to implement new environmentally friendly materials to their facilities.

RMIT University school of engineering associate professor, Abbas Mohajerani, said companies should think of research collaborations with universities as a chance to improve sustainability processes in their facilities. “I think the manufacturing industry should really continue to make steps to find a solution to environmental issues. They have a big role to play. They have to start seriously contributing to those sustainability goals,” said Mohajerani.

“They should really start to think about values of some of the waste materials.” Mohajerani and his team researched how biosolids can be used to create sustainable products that can be used in factories, for example. The research sought to tackle two environmental issues – the stockpiles of biosolids and the excavation of soil required for brick production.

“More than 3 billion cubic metres of clay soil is dug up each year for the global brickmaking industry, to produce about 1.5 trillion bricks. Using biosolids in bricks could be the solution to these big environmental challenges.

“It’s a practical and sustainable proposal for recycling the biosolids currently stockpiled or going to landfill around the globe,” he said. The research examined the physical, chemical and mechanical properties of fired-clay bricks incorporating different proportions of biosolids, from 10-25 per cent.

The biosolid-enhanced bricks passed compressive strength tests and analysis demonstrated heavy metals are largely trapped within the brick. The research showed brick firing energy demand was cut by up to 48.6 per cent for bricks incorporating 25 per cent biosolids. This is due to the organic content of the biosolids and could considerably reduce the carbon footprint of brick manufacturing companies.

“Most environmental issues are out of sight, out of mind. We are all responsible to think about and meaningfully do whatever we can for restoring natural sustainability to the environment, otherwise we will all be guilty of ignoring the deep, and potentially irreversible, environmental damage we have caused.”

Mohajerani said using biosolids is just one simple solution that manufacturers can consider. “They are much lighter and more porous. They have low thermal connectivity that means less heat transfer.” He said by considering alternative materials when manufacturing products, businesses can save on energy and daily running costs, while reducing their carbon footprint.