The ingredients of sustainability

In the quest for improved sustainability, details matter. To meet challenging environmental targets, food and beverage companies may need to increase their focus on the intricacies of operations and maintenance. Eva Otel, Marketing and Sustainability Manager at SKF, explains.

The food and beverage industry knows that sustainability matters. Customers increasingly prefer products with good social and environmental credentials. Shareholders want assurances that companies aren’t wasting money by consuming excessive water or energy, or by producing too much waste. Regulators want manufacturing processes that don’t pollute the land, rivers or atmosphere. And, as the UN COP21 treaty demonstrates, the world’s governments are aligned in their commitment to reduce global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions.

Leading global food and drink companies have set themselves challenging sustainability targets. Among other social and environmental commitments, for example, Diageo aims to safely return 100 percent of wastewater, Unilever wants to reduce the full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of its products by 50 percent, and Nestle has set itself the goal of eliminating factory waste sent to landfill , all by 2020. 

Those goals are significant, and companies’ commitment admirable, but they are proving tough to achieve. Increasingly, these companies are realising that the key to world class sustainability performance lies in the details of their operations and maintenance processes.

Many decisions a company makes have an impact on sustainability, from the sourcing of inputs to the choice of manufacturing technologies and the design of the supply chain. Many food and beverage companies have made important changes in these areas: encouraging suppliers to adopt efficient agricultural methods for example, installing high efficiency equipment in manufacturing plants, or sourcing electricity from renewable sources. Strategic decisions like these can only take an organisation so far, however. In fact, tactical choices about the way equipment is run can have considerable impact on key sustainability metrics. 

To understand why, it is worth looking at a few examples. In the realm of energy efficiency, for example, one common decision might be to replace the electric motors used to drive pumps, mixers and other equipment with higher efficiency units. An 18.5kW electric motor of efficiency class IE1 can have a nominal efficiency of 89.3 percent. The class IE3 version of the same motor can have an efficiency of 92.6 percent. That 3.3 percent efficiency improvement is valuable, but if the pump driven by the motor is poorly maintained, or if misaligned connecting shafts result in greater friction in a machine, the resulting energy losses can easily be greater than any gains delivered by such specification improvements.

At one food and beverage plant, for example, 12 pumps were exhibiting high levels of vibration and rapid wear. Working with SKF, the plant’s operations team identified poor shaft alignment as the root cause of the issue. After precision alignment, not only were noise, vibration and reliability improved, but the energy consumption of the pumps was reduced by as much as 20 percent in one case, and by 16 percent on average. The fix saved the company more than 9,000kWh per year in electricity consumption in each pump, and reduced its annual CO2 emissions by 28 tonnes a year across all 12. With some food or beverage manufacturing sites relying on many hundreds of pumps in their operations, improvements like these can add up very quickly.

Then there is the effect of equipment availability. In the event of an unscheduled stoppage, most plants will leave other equipment in the line running while repairs are made. As a result, the energy consumed per unit produced increases as line reliability falls.

It is a known fact that effective lubrication plays a critical role in helping plants reduce unplanned downtime. It is often said that lubrication management can make or break asset performance. As good lubrication practices are widely accepted to be fundamental to plant reliability, the question is not about re-lubricating or not, but about the choices made to achieve the right outcome with minimum environmental impact.

The dry cleaning of bearings can generate grease contaminated materials like gloves and cleaning cloths, paper towels for example, that will typically go for incineration. This adversely impacts the Zero Landfill3 Initiative that advocates for a change from disposal to avoidance oriented practices.

In case of washdowns, excessive grease (due to purge) is being washed off from bearings, entering the waste water stream.

If lubrication is not tightly managed, the problems can multiply. Lubricant that escapes into the production environment can compromise food safety and create slip hazards for operators.

The food and beverage industry should reconsider the way lubrication is managed on sites and look into alternative technologies that provide food & operator safety, optimized costs and environmental benefits in the same time.

Tackling challenges of this kind requires changes at a very granular level. High efficiency seals can reduce water ingress into bearings, reducing failures and extending replacement intervals. Automated lubrication systems can precisely control the quantity of lubricants, reducing consumption, minimising contamination risk and saving labour. Perhaps most significantly, a new generation of re-lubrication-free and lubricated for life bearing technologies can allow companies break the wash-down/re-lubrication cycle for good.

Technologies like these frequently provide a win-win solution for food and beverage companies, reducing operating costs while also helping to meet sustainability and food safety targets. The main challenge in capturing such opportunities is finding them. It is unlikely that even a large and well-resourced corporate sustainability department will have the detailed knowledge of equipment and shop floor operations required to identify many possible improvements. And the people who do – operations and maintenance teams – may be more focussed on other priorities. That calls for a cultural change. Only when responsibility for sustainability is dispersed through the whole organisation – by including targets for efficiency improvements and waste reduction alongside those for quality, productivity and safety – will food and beverage companies find the recipe for superior long-term performance.

About SKF

SKF is a leading global supplier of bearings, seals, mechatronics, lubrication systems, and services which include technical support, maintenance and reliability services, engineering consulting and training. SKF is represented in more than 130 countries and has around 17,000 distributor locations worldwide. Annual sales in 2015 were SEK 75 997 million and the number of employees was 46 635.

Contact

Press Relations: Sabine Hergenröder
Tel:+46 31 337 6418, +46 705 77 6418
Email: sabine.hergenroder@skf.com