The metal fabrication industry is sometimes criticized for not being very “green” or sustainable. There is some justification for this, as fabrication machinery is energy-intensive, and a proportion of the materials brought in go out as waste. However, we would also argue sustainable metal fabrication is really just about minimizing waste and being as efficient as possible.
In this blog, we’ll look at how fabrication generates waste, and what we do to minimize it. We’ll discuss the “green” practices we use and the benefits of trying to become more sustainable, and we’ll conclude with a few examples of what can be done.
Sources of Waste in Fabrication
From a Lean Manufacturing perspective, waste is anything that doesn’t add value for the customer or that the customer isn’t paying for. However, not all the Seven Wastes (or eight, depending on which Lean authority you follow), have a direct impact on sustainability. We could argue a link between inventory or delays and lack of sustainability, but it is somewhat tenuous. So the main sources of waste we see in fabrication relate to material usage and energy consumption.
Material Usage Waste
Any material that doesn’t get delivered to the customer as part of the final product is waste. This consists of:
- Scrap: Anything that doesn’t meet the required standards, either dimensionally or because of damage.
- Offcuts: The lattice that’s left after cutting parts from a sheet, and the ends of bars, tubes, and extrusion.
- Setup pieces: Sometimes pieces are sacrificed to test a setup or welding procedure.
An interesting point about metal waste is that most of it can be recycled. This is especially true for aluminum, where recycling is very important from a sustainability perspective because remelting scrap is far more energy-efficient than smelting bauxite ore. However, recyclers generally prefer that different types of scrap metal be kept separate, which isn’t always feasible.
Machines like waterjet laser cutters and turret punches draw a lot of power when they’re running. We can’t do a lot about that, other than ensure every part they produce is a good part. If they produce bad parts for some reason, that’s a waste, and that applies to every fabrication process including welding.
Benefits of Reducing Waste
Recycling is good, but it’s better not to create waste in the first place. If we can do that, the benefits to us are:
- Reduced costs, because we’re consuming less energy and material
- Less handling of waste material, which takes time but can also be a safety hazard because of the sharp edges and burrs
- Lower disposal charges: Some of the waste we produce, like leftover welding consumables and cutting and stamping oils, we have to pay to get rid of. If we use less, that’s another saving.
- Better image: Being wasteful is like being greedy – it’s just not an attractive trait – and we would like to be seen as responsible members of our community.
Green Practices For Sustainable Metal Fabrication
There’s no magic wand you can wave to become sustainable, it’s just a lot of small things that need doing well. The main items on our list are:
- Follow Lean Manufacturing principles, especially in terms of doing every job right the first time.
- Consider sustainability during design: Perhaps a few tweaks can improve material utilization, explore using stainless steel or aluminum to avoid corrosion problems, and what about designing for easier servicing and end-of-life disassembly?
- Plan every job carefully to minimize material waste: Nesting techniques are a big part of this for sheet material, and our high-powered fiber laser enables tighter nesting thanks to a smaller heat-affected zone. With offcuts, label, track and store them properly so they can be located and used later.
- Use energy-efficient machines and equipment, and use them efficiently: Don’t start up a power-hungry machine for a single job; either use a slower machine or organize a batch of work to run on it. (Admittedly, this may mean compromising those Lean principles.)
- Segregate and label waste so it has some value for metal recyclers
- Focus on safety: Not only are accidents distressing for those involved, but they’re also incredibly wasteful of time and resources. That makes driving accidents to zero an important sustainability practice.
- Education and training: Many of these sustainability actions depend on people doing the right thing, but they won’t know what that is unless someone tells them. This makes education a key element of sustainable metal fabrication.
On the Road to More Sustainable Fabrication
We know we’re not alone in our desire to be “greener”. Across our industry, there’s a big movement towards becoming more sustainable, and many fabricators are happy to discuss what they’re doing in their blogs and on their websites.
To give some examples, there’s one in the UK who posts about how they’ve upgraded to LED lighting and another in Florida who discusses the use of recycled and recyclable materials on LinkedIn. A third fabricator we know of, with operations in multiple states, shares a list of their sustainability practices on their website.
The bottom line is, we know that at Wiley we’re not alone in working to improve sustainability. We also know that it’s just good business. Our customers want to see it, and it helps us focus on things like improving quality and cutting waste.
It’s Not a Phase, It’s Just How we Work
Wiley Metal Fabricating has been part of the community in Marion, Indiana for a long time, and we strive to be a good neighbor. That means getting involved in things like the “Watch Us Manufacturing Academy”, taking care of our workforce, and doing our part to look after the environment. Sustainable metal fabrication isn’t a short-term thing for us, it’s the way we intend to work permanently.
If you’d like to talk to someone about our sustainability efforts, fill out our Contact Us form and we’ll get back to you.