Ford Motor Company’s iconic Rouge site in Dearborn, just outside of Detroit, Michigan, has been dubbed by some as America’s greatest manufacturing experience. Henry Ford’s ultimate goal was to achieve self-sufficiency by owning, operating and co-ordinating all the resources needed to produce complete automobiles. Rouge is the closest he came to achieving that vision; when completed in 1928 it became the largest integrated factory in the world.
In November 2016, Ford reached another milestone with its Rouge centre, announcing that it had become landfill-free. Considering the site has six production facilities, covers around 16 million square feet of factory floor space and houses some 7,000 employees, this was no small feat. Andy Hobbs, director of Ford’s environmental quality office, says while the company has achieved zero waste to landfill at a number of its sites – 77 in total – this one was the “biggest and most important to us in North America”.
“It was hugely significant for the company. It’s right here in Detroit, where Henry Ford was born,” he says. “It’s still a unique site in that we have assembly of the Ford F-150 here, so we have body shops, paint shops, stamping plants, engine plants. It was a challenge, we invested a huge amount of money in modernising the facility.”
It took around two years for Rouge to go zero waste. During that time the company implemented a closed-loop recycling system at the site for the manufacture of its F-150 aluminium models. Between 30-40% of a typical aluminium coil is turned into scrap during the stamping process. Working with aluminium company Novelis, Ford is re-purposing this scrap into new metal for its trucks using the closed-loop system – it now recycles up to 20 million pounds in weight of aluminium stamping scrap each month.
Hobbs points out that recycled aluminium avoids 95% of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with primary aluminium production. It also uses significantly less energy and water; in terms of minimising vehicle lifecycle carbon footprint, Ford’s F-150 aluminium truck is considered a leader in its field.
There have been other innovations too. In working towards zero waste and switching over to aluminium production, Ford needed to find a solution for its paint shops. Hobbs explains that before aluminium is painted, it needs to be cleaned and pre-treated, and this pre-treatment is typically done with zinc phosphate. However, this presented a disposal challenge in terms of US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.
“The EPA regulation over here is that if we phosphate aluminium, the wastewater that we produce and the sludge that comes from that has to go to landfill, else it will be classified as a hazardous waste. And if it’s classed as hazardous waste, the cost of disposal goes up significantly,” says Hobbs.
Finding alternative solutions
Ford overcame this problem by replacing the zinc phosphate process with a zirconium oxide system.
“That enabled us to recycle the material a lot more cost effectively,” says Hobbs. “It was a big challenge, but we worked in partnership with our paint engineering team and our paint suppliers, and I think it was a wonderful solution.”
Given the number of facilities and extensive operations at Rouge, the process of diverting every waste stream was quite involved. Inside the engine plant, metal shavings and chips (known as swarf) are generated during the grinding process – and the team needed to find a way to reclaim that. The solution was to install a briquetter machine that could process the metal into a brick for recycling. The advantage of this is that any coolant oil on the metal shavings squeezed out during the process can also be reused.
Staff buy-in has been crucial to making Ford’s zero waste drive work, not just at Rouge but across its global sites.
Hobbs says the company relies heavily on its employees for ideas – and answers too. “The engagement from our employees is something that I’m really proud of, there’s a real interest in doing these things and there’s a real passion behind doing them effectively and quickly.”
This is perhaps best illustrated when it comes to the simple act of waste segregation. “There is no doubt that the person who is responsible for removing plastic caps on the engines, they know the best way of segregating those caps and putting them in the right places to ensure that we can recycle them. They are the best people to see challenges and opportunities that we may be missing sitting here in the office,” says Hobbs.
Forty-four of Ford’s 77 zero waste to landfill sites are manufacturing plants. Hobbs says there are another 18 manufacturing sites still to be converted, but he hopes this will be achieved in the next few years. The car-maker has already surpassed its global goal of reducing waste to landfill by 40% from 2011 to 2016; as of 2015, this waste reduction figure was 54%.
Looking at waste reduction progress on a geographical level, the company’s North American operations lag behind other regions such as Europe and Asia Pacific. Hobbs says each region has its own challenges; in North America, landfill is inexpensive compared with Europe, and for sites that are switching over to aluminium production, the changes required to achieve zero waste need to be planned and scheduled in. For those that have reached zero waste, the next step is to build on year-on-year waste reductions and squeeze out more efficiencies through material optimisation. Part of this strategy involves each site taking responsibility at a local level to effect waste management change.
“Many of our engineers conduct what we call a ‘waste walk’ where we walk the shop floor with members of the teams, looking for opportunities,” says Hobbs. “When we set objectives, even if they’ve got to zero waste to landfill, and we give them a target to go beyond – those targets are not easy to achieve without having that ownership.”
Going forward, Hobbs envisages more of the company’s waste streams becoming potential material or energy inputs in the future. He highlights Ford’s ‘Fumes to Fuel’ project as an example of this – the company has developed a paint emissions concentrator (PEC) technology, which uses a fluidised bed adsorber, desorber and condensation equipment to collect and concentrate solvent emissions into a liquid.
PEC effectively condenses volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions captured from the production process and stores them on-site for use as fuel source. The technology can reduce CO2 emissions by 70-80% compared with traditional abatement equipment. Coupled with the recycling of collected solvents, PEC also has the potential to eliminate nitrogen oxide emissions. In addition, there is potential to reform the captured VOCs into hydrogen, which could be used in fuel cells.
“The first pilot we did with Fumes to Fuel was at the Rouge plant in 2000,” says Hobbs. “We had a very small system which generated enough electricity to power some lights. Since then we’ve built a whole new research centre where we have full-scale systems in place. We’re continuing that research, so there are further processes we are looking at to make them self-contained.”
Five things I can't live without...
The first three are related: They are sun, sea and sand. I really enjoy all three of those, and on an environmental level, we’ve got to protect all of those things. When you walk down to the sea, it’s fabulous. You realise how inconsequential you are when you look out at the ocean.
My Harley Davidson: I really love my bike. I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was sixteen and never not had one. I like to get on it and head south … to South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee … because that’s where the sun is.
Wi-Fi internet: So I can sit on my couch with my laptop, and plan how we’re going to get to zero waste to landfill for next year.
Andy Hobbs' CV
Andy Hobbs is the director of environmental quality at Ford, where he has worked for over 30 years. Hobbs and his team played a key role in Ford’s achievement of being named Interbrand’s Number One Best Global Green Brand in 2014 and have been central to the car-maker’s efforts to build on the company’s existing legacy of forward-thinking environmental stewardship and reducing the environmental footprint of facilities globally. Hobbs graduated from Liverpool John Moores University with a degree in mechanical engineering.
Maxine Perella is a freelance journalist