Sustainability in High Tech 

We have seen in recent years, an increase in the number of articles discussing variations on the theme of “Green Electronics”.  This is exciting, and some of the goals and ideas expressed may indeed have lasting, positive effects on this vital segment of the US economy.  The good news is that high tech firms have a penchant for adopting leading edge technology.  Unlike other, more mature industries, such as heavy manufacturing and automotive, high tech is accustomed to an unending stream of changes in underlying technology and is not a priori adverse to new business models -- if the potential ROI looks good. 

As we embark on a path towards a more sustainable business model in high tech, we should examine several facets of the landscape.  

Management’s Role

First of all, we need to understand senior management’s motivations for moving in this direction.  Do the board members and the executive staff think that this avenue represents the possibility of long term competitive advantage?  Is it likely to become a fundamental requirement just to stay in business?  In other words, is the “Green Effort” itself sustainable?  After all, it will cost money.  It will necessitate changes in processes and products.  It probably will not be a profitable activity in the first one to three years, and finally, when established, sustainable engineering practices are more likely to be  cost savers than revenue generators.

Senior management must send consistent messages about the importance of green engineering to the enterprise.  Buy-in at the executive staff should be unanimous.  We acknowledge that such consistency of agendas may not be automatic.  To make this happen, we need serious, comprehensive efforts to address misgivings or doubts about the wisdom of this approach.  If buy-in is complete, this effort can be a great force for cohesiveness and teamwork within the company.

At the Core: Sustainable Engineering

Next, we need to break the notion of sustainable engineering into several aspects so that the challenges are manageable.  We will need organizational structures that bridge these aspects so that solutions are synergistic rather than zero-sum (or worse).  Here is an example breakdown of a sustainability initiative:

1) Design.  Design teams need to analyze life cycle performance of past products.  What are the trends in energy efficiency in the product lines?  During operation, have the products demonstrated scalability in energy use?  For example, what have we seen in the relationships between power requirements and network traffic?  At what total system size have we seen the necessity to add active, external cooling?  Design teams will need to learn from past and existing products.  Design teams will need to record what they learn so that efforts are repeatable and results are measurable.

2) Manufacturing.  Sustainability goes far beyond lead-free packaging.  What is the total waste stream generated during manufacturing?  What is the embodied energy in the products - the total energy used to manufacture, test, and package?  In part due to past TQM efforts, manufacturing teams are traditionally good at record keeping.  Now they will need to add a new facet to their measurements.  This is an area where concrete, incremental improvements are possible.  They may also result in cost savings.  After all, the company pays for everything used in the manufacturing process.  

3) Delivery.  Transportation costs continue to escalate.  Where are the best leverage points to optimize the locations of subcomponent vendors, sub-assemblers, final packaging, and shippers?  Would regional centers for final assembly & test reduce energy and material usage, or are some centralized models the more efficient?  What changes in conditions would reverse this?  What are the trends?  Are we near a tipping point?

4) End of LIfe.  Can we develop a model that would allow us to accept obsolete products?  Can we cost-effectively refurbish these products for resale in secondary markets?  What portions of the products can be reused in new products?  Cases?  Chassis?  Power supplies?  How inexpensively -- measured in cost and energy -- can the products be disassembled for component recycling?  Obviously, end-of-life questions need to be discussed and resolved with the design teams.  Writers in this field often refer to these challenges as “Cradle to Cradle” considerations.

Business Considerations

These ideas all need to be tied back together in terms of the corporate strategic plan.  Without acceptable ROI, we won’t be able to sustain the effort.

Can the green engineering effort result in carbon credits that can be sold or traded?  Can sales be enhanced or costs reduced or tax credits gained because of a green engineering plan?  Which of your customers are facing a potential limit on their own carbon emissions?  Can your products help your customers reach their own goals?

Another important financial question: can we agree up-front that cost savings derived from green engineering efforts be plowed back into enhanced efforts in this area?  This can help sustain the effort over business cycles.

Finally, keep in mind that innovations in green engineering may themselves be patentable and hence licensable.  This may not be a major revenue source, but it can offset the costs of the program.  The peer recognition associated with special employee patent awards for green innovation can also be a motivator.

Energy-efficient Facilities

In addition, we need to address the opportunities for efficiency and sustainability in the operation of our own corporate offices.  There are many things that companies are already doing in this area (reduction of paper usage and recycling, for example) and there are many more opportunities to explore.  This is best handled in conjunction with the facilities management staff. 

Possible initiatives are vast.  Here are just a few items to consider:

Building interior “climate” management.  High tech buildings are notoriously uncomfortable and expensive to heat and cool.  One of the biggest contributors to this is inoperable windows.  Another is insulation.  Modern materials can raise the effective “R value” of office buildings significantly.  Properly designed window systems can reduce AC load.

Use awnings or exterior light distribution surfaces to either reduce solar heat gain (in warm months) or send light deep into the building interior to reduce the need for auxiliary lighting.  These techniques save energy and make the building more comfortable.

Management of waste heat.  This is huge.  Any new construction or major renovation should seriously consider using the “infinite heat sink” that lies about 6 feet below the ground -- the stable temperature of the soil.  This can both pre-heat incoming air as well as pre-cool air that has been heated by equipment and personnel.  For major upgrades to HVAC systems, closed loop, ground source heat pumps are expensive to install, but very cost effective over the long haul.

On-site hot-water generation.  The pay back on a properly designed and installed system in a mild sunny climate, can be as few as 5 - 8 years.  Tax credits can reduce payback time.  It is relatively straightforward to mate a solar hot water “pre-heater” to an existing water heating system.

On-site electrical power generation.  PV system costs continue to drop.  Flat roofed buildings provide good real estate to locate panels.  In addition, PV-roofed “canopies” over the parking lot can significantly reduce the heat island effect that we see in areas surrounded by asphalt.  This can reduce the AC load on the campus buildings.

Community Outreach & Internal Communication

To reap maximum ROI, these efforts need to be communicated.  Press releases, carefully supervised “open houses”, choreographed visits by local, regional, and possibly state officials, and field trips for local school children (again with careful supervision) all contribute to the company’s reputation as a good neighbor and a good contributor who is in the community for the long haul.

In addition to communicating the current state of efforts, it is important to talk about future plans and trends.  Setting and publicly discussing goals helps build commitment inside the company and helps the company sustain its image as a positive force in the region.  

Finally, we want to let our employees participate in these efforts.  Just as top engineers are motivated by challenging work and interesting problems, most top employees will be motivated by the knowledge that their company is doing something substantive and positive in the public realm.  Make sure that internal newsletters and executive presentations communicate at least as much as to the employees as PR pieces communicate outside.

Conclusion

Just as we would approach any complex business opportunity through analysis, we need to look at the idea of green engineering in terms of its component sub-strategies.  Because this work is by its nature holistic and multi-disciplinary, we must take extra care to coordinate efforts across divisional boundaries.  Solutions developed exclusively within a silo will probably be at best zero-sum when considered at the corporate level. 

We must involve decision makers at all levels and give serious consideration to ideas that percolate up through the organization.  Of special interest are ideas that come from cross-functional teams or informal relationships.  These will help bridge divisional boundaries.

Finally, the corporate leaders need to send clear, concise, and consistent message about the company’s commitment to Green Innovation.  Communications need to

© Michael C. Glaviano 2009 - 2016