Innovation, Efficiency Will Keep America Globally Competitive

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Natural Resources Defense Council. Author credit goes to Peter Lehner.

Henry Ford blew away the competition–and arguably changed the world–when his company developed an assembly line to build Model T cars. By making his operations more efficient, Ford and his engineers cut production time down from 12.5 hours to 1.5 hours for each car, dramatically boosting output. Efficiency brought down the price of a car so fast that within a few years, the automobile was no longer a toy for the wealthy, but within the reach of Ford’s assembly line workers.

Today, cars everywhere are still built on assembly lines, and efficiency continues to be a critical strategy for manufacturers. Efficiency is also a smart strategy for our nation as a whole, helping us conserve valuable resources, reduce costs for consumers and businesses, and strengthen our economy. That’s why the Department of Energy recently announced $54 million in grants for projects that enhance energy efficiency in the manufacturing sector.

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Many of the energy efficiency strategies we hear about–like better light bulbs or fuel-efficient cars–target consumer products. But industrial production consumes about one-third of all the energy produced in the United States; so becoming more efficient in the way we build those products is also critical. Efficient manufacturing not only saves energy for the entire country, it reduces costs for manufacturers and makes them more competitive–helping them keep more manufacturing jobs at home.

Several of the 13 projects awarded DOE funding have applications in the vehicle industry, such as GM’s new process for manufacturing car doors. Normally this is a multi-step process, involving multiple components and several machines that roll out, cut, stamp and mold carbon steel. GM has been developing a new, integrated process that uses a lightweight magnesium alloy to make doors. The streamlined process uses half the energy of the conventional method. On top of that, it makes car doors that are 60 percent lighter, helping GM’s fleet meet federal fuel efficiency standards. (These fuel efficiency standards alone will help cut gas costs in half for drivers, while generating as much as $300 billion in revenue for Detroit’s automakers.)

Efficiency is a smart investment from which any business can profit. Fifteen years ago, NRDC worked with Dow Chemical to improve operations in its Midland, Michigan, facility, reducing pollution 43 percent and saving the company $5 million annually. Today, we’re working with the fashion industry to improve textile manufacturing in China, helping manufacturers save fuel, water, and raw materials while reducing pollution. The Redbud Textile Company in Changshu, China, adopted just three of NRDC’s recommended strategies, with a one-time cost of $72,000, and is now saving nearly $840,000 per year.

In some cases, finding efficiency might be as simple as replacing a leaky valve. But in more modern industries, a big efficiency gain might require a game-changing manufacturing leap–like an entirely new way of making car doors. We don’t know where the next innovation is going to come from, so providing incentives across a number of industries is key. The Department of Energy has just done that, selecting  projects that could have applications in the manufacturing of aircraft and vehicles, lighting and electronics, plastics and petrochemicals, iron and steel, paper and batteries, to name a few. Other projects have benefits across many industries, such as a process that uses bacteria to turn factory wastes into electricity and other useful products, which is expected to save 40 trillion BtUs of energy and offset 6 million tons of global warming pollution each year.

Manufacturing and innovation have long been America’s strengths. Programs like these, which provide critical support for American entrepreneurs, play to our strengths and help keep American industry competitive in today’s globalized world. If we can provide the nudge that leads to the next great leap in industrial innovation, the payoff will be well worth it.

NRDC is the nation's most effective environmental action group, combining the grassroots power of 1.3 million members and online activists with the courtroom clout and expertise of more than 350 lawyers, scientists and other professionals.