How efficiency generates green innovation
A solution should be simple and provide the greatest possible benefit. Ecodesign expert Rainer Züst is not a great believer in rules. Instead, he seeks the maximum leverage for increasing efficiency in every product. Everyone should ultimately benefit from it.
Yvonne von Hunnius, 11.08.2015
“They’ve caught the bug,” says Rainer Züst, his eyes lighting up. The ecodesign expert comes directly from the final session in his lecture series at the ETH “Ecodesign – Umweltgerechte Produktgestaltung” (“Ecodesign – environmentally-friendly product design), at which young mechanical engineers have presented their study projects. Their task was to combine ecodesign ideas with economies of scale and intelligent systems. Züst comments: “This is not everyday work for mechanical engineers and they find it fascinating – in this way their work makes a crucial contribution to the well-being of the company and the environment.” For over 20 years Rainer Züst has been working on developing ways of designing products so that they serve the needs of the environment in addition to those of the economy and society. He not only shares his knowledge at the ETH Zurich and other technical colleges, as an entrepreneur and expert from the Reffnet.ch initiative, he also implements resource-efficiency projects with companies.
Ecodesign has long been of interest to many companies as its economic advantages are obvious: material costs account for around 45 percent of their total costs. However, enormous potential still exists in this area. Studies show that up to a quarter can be saved on material costs through ecodesign measures. Rainer Züst is one of the most renowned ecodesign practitioners in Switzerland and is developing the concept further with a view to moving closer to a green economy. He relies on a simple approach to achieve this. “When I arrive at a company, I start by looking at the planned or existing product and its possible use. I then examine where the most resources are consumed over the lifecycle of the product – this reveals the leverage, with which most change can be achieved,” says Züst. He also works for Reffnet, an association that was established by a number of technical colleges and consultancies on behalf of the federal authorities in 2014. Reffnet supports companies in improving their material effiiency, and ecodesign offers a way of doing this. Companies can avail of up to five days of consultancy services from Reffnet experts – and, according to Züst, this can enable them to make crucial progress on a project. Ideally, ecodesign already comes into play at the product design stage so that it can enable the emergence of innovations. However, it is always possible to rethink things at a later stage.
To identify the maximum potential for efficiency, as a pragmatist, Züst makes use of standard parameters by producing an energy profile. Just energy? “No, with this I also create an overview of the materials used. I want to present the advantages as simply as possible,” he says. His experience has revealed that one thing is crucial: demonstrating very quickly how companies can benefit. This has enabled many of them to design their products and processes more efficiently – with a positive impact on both the economic and ecological bottom lines. The companies involved include representatives of the mechanical engineering and metal industries, along with the furniture manufacturer USM and kitchen producer Franke. For example, together with Franke, Rainer Züst compared production processes for sinks and developed clear arguments for a monobloc process, which is now being implemented with the new “Evolution” line of sinks. Over the course of five years, this enabled the company to save on 7,500 tonnes of stainless steel and 40 million kilowatt hours of electricity.
But is the process as simple as it sounds? Everything depends on the context in which the product is subsequently used. Züst differentiates between immobile products like tables and mobile products. With the former, the adopted measures target the selection of materials, the product lifespan and its manufacture. With mobile products like aeroplanes, the focus is on efficient functioning during the subsequent use of the product. “If it enables savings in terms of large volumes of kerosene, a material could be used in lightweight construction that consumes more energy during its processing than another material,” he says. The lion’s share makes the difference and some measures generate enormous savings through economies of scale. This is demonstrated by the optimisation of tooling machines, on which Züst collaborated with the precision scales manufacturer Mettler Toledo. Without making any additional investment in new acquisitions it was possible to save on ten percent of the energy requirement for machine operating time. Züst notes: “In Switzerland, 15,000 new metal processing machines commence operation annually. Grossed up, a total of CHF 50 million can be saved using simple measures.”
In addition to economies of scale, Züst sees the future of ecodesign as lying in intelligent systems. These offer, inter alia, ingenious options for reducing resource consumption in the use of a product. Sensors in a washing machine monitor the washing process: this promotes the sparing use of water and energy. More sophisticated driver assistance systems in cars are promoting driving habits that save on fuel consumption, in particular.
But this is just the beginning for Züst. He now divides ecodesign into versions 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. Following solutions for the efficient manufacture of a product and greater efficiency in its use, the focus is now on a third kind of benefit along the value-added chain. New leverage effects arise if a producer thinks not only of the immediate customer but also the end user and goes beyond system boundaries. Based on this logic, when developing new products a sensor manufacturer not only has the machine builder, to whom he sells these products, in mind, but also the machine operator. The full efficiency impact of his new idea may only take effect through the use of the machine by the latter.
Züst aims to develop the cluster concept further along the value-added chain. He is currently working in a pilot cluster on high-strength steels with the companies Swiss Steel, Steeltec and ThyssenKrupp Presta. The questions to be answered concern new applications and the optimal geometry of metal blanks. But how do all actors benefit from the added value arising from the optimisation process? What is needed here are benefit models, shared-value concepts and the ability look beyond the rim of your own teacup. Züst says: “As a result, ecodesign is becoming a collaborative challenge today. If we succeed in finding an ingenious solution, ecodesign could make the entire workplace more green and more competitive.”
Thanks to the addition of an electric auxiliary drive for the hydraulic system, ecodesign for waste trucks ensures less noise, lower emissions and greater energy efficiency. The project was presented in mid-June by the Schwendimann waste disposal company from Münchenbuchsee and System-Alpenluft AG from Zermatt. The design is based on an electric auxiliary drive with a hugely reduced battery pack. When existing waste trucks are upgraded with this system, instead of the diesel engine, the auxiliary drive supplies energy for the entire system – including the press for compacting the waste and the shaking used to empty the containers. As a result, the waste collection process is almost completely silent and the CO2 emissions for the entire operating period are reduced by around 100 tonnes. The project partners were the Austrian battery manufacturer Kreisel Electric GmbH and the Greek company Kaoussis SA, which produced the module for the waste truck. The system was further optimised with the help of the experts from Reffnet.ch.
Working in cooperation with ecodesign experts, USM analysed its entire product range, which is largely based on recycled steel. The focus was on the environmental impacts generated across the entire product lifecycle – that is from the extraction of the raw materials to waste disposal. As a result it was possible to achieve considerable reductions in the production process for the rejection rate during powder coating and, hence also, in the steel consumption. Reductions were also achieved through intermediary checks, awareness-raising among employees and the use of new technical tools. In addition, USM modified the top-hung and extension doors, thereby enabling the elimination of an additional layer of zinc coating. USM not only achieved overall reductions of almost 27 percent in the environmental impact of the top-hung doors, but also reduced the downtime of the punching and bending tools and, as a result, succeeded in improving the overall economic efficiency of its manufacturing.
Link: Fallbeispiel_Mettler Toldeo_Ecodesign-Werkzeugmaschine (in German)
Ecodesign also helps with the optimal use of resources when several companies are involved in the manufacture and use of products. However, it is essential that the companies involved in this kind of process chain put their heads together. Three companies from the steel sector have recently tested this approach as part of an initiative of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN): the parties involved were steel manufacturer Swiss Steel, the semi-finished materials manufacturer Steeltec and ThyssenKrupp Presta, which specialises in steering systems. Together with Rainer Züst they discussed the use of high-strength steels. In general, the advantage of these materials is that they allow more to be done using less material. However, the aim is to analyse concretely the extent to which the use of the material enables the optimisation of the process chain. The initial conclusion is that lower production costs and fewer processing stages can be achieved using high-strength steels. Work is currently underway on further clarification with a view to implementation. The results of the process were presented in the report “Ressourceneffizienz in Prozessketten am Beispiel hochfester Stähle” (“Resource efficiency in process chains based on the example of high-strength steels”) in May.