Engineering experts in the US are developing a new and more comprehensive approach to sustainability in the manufacturing sector, encompassing all aspects of the production process starting from the factory floor upwards.

The new approach, under development by engineers from Oregon State University (OSU), seeks to address all aspects of the production process, including social and human welfare issues on top of the standard economic and environmental concerns.

Karl Haapala, OSU assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering, said the concept marks a major advance upon prior efforts which focus primarily on “end-of-pipe” issues such as increases in efficiency or pollution reductions.

“We’re trying to solve the problem at the source, to begin the process right at the drawing board or on the shop floor,” said Haapala. “We want to consider a whole range of issues every step of the way, so that sustainability is built into the entire manufacturing process.”

According to Haapala, the method incorporates the best aspects of preceding sustainability assessment models devised for the manufacturing process, such as “life cycle assessment” of systems, which examines total energy consumption and environmental effects.

At every stage of the design and decision-making process, the new OTU approach scrutinises manufacturing methods, operation time, environmental impacts, materials, energy consumption and waste.

Where their method charts a departure from its predecessors, however, is in its incorporation of social and human welfare issues into its assessments.

“This is one of the few approaches to systematically consider the social aspects of the workplace environment, so that people are happy, productive, safe, and can contribute to their families and communities,” said Hao Chang, a graduate research assistant on the study and doctoral student at the OTU College of Engineering.

According to Zhang, the social aspects of the manufacturing process have traditionally been omitted from consideration because of the difficulty of quantification or measurement. Issues such as health, safety and human contentment, however, are of pivotal significance not just to the manufacturing operation itself, but for the rest of the community and society as whole, and in the OSU team’s estimation too important to be left out.

“Suppose we make changes that speed up the output of a manufacturing line,” Zhang cited as an example. “In theory that might produce more product, but what are the impacts on tool wear, increased down time or worker satisfaction with the job? What bout risk of worker injury and the costs associated with that? Every change you make might affect many other issues, but too often those issues are not considered.”

Haapala and Zhang have used the test project of stainless steel knife production to demonstrate the benefits of their approach but say it should be applicable to multiple levels of the manufacturing sector.

The findings of their research has already been published in the Journal of Cleaner Productionwhile the OSU team are currently collaborating with Sheldon Manufacturing, a designer and manufacture of laboratory equipment, to further develop their approach.