Tour de sustainability theme of visit

October 20, 2008
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American manufacturing may be down, but it’s not out. And according to William G. Sutton, U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for manufacturing and services, sustainable practices will help companies stay competitive in a global market.

“When you look at U.S. competitiveness, there’s really two pieces to it,” said Sutton. “On one side, it’s the domestic issue, and it is one of the premiums you all pay to operate in the United States.”

Sutton referred to the premiums as “The Big Five,” including such things as health care benefits.

The second half of U.S. competitiveness, Sutton said, is globalization and the ability for the U.S. to access other markets.

“On any given day, our office is working on 40 to 50 trade barrier issues. It’s a work in progress. We’re evolving, but our office is working along those lines.”

Sutton and several other members of the U.S. Department of Commerce recently toured a few of West Michigan’s sustainable manufacturing plants. The tour started at the Steelcase Wood Products Plant, then proceeded to Rapid-Line Inc. and Herman Miller, with the final stop at Cascade Engineering.

The visit was part of the department’s SMART initiative, an acronym for Sustainable Manufacturing American Regional Tours.

Sustainable techniques have been shown to improve a company’s bottom line by creating a differentiator from competitors, and by implementing such best practices as reducing or eliminating waste. The goal of SMART is to promote and educate about sustainable manufacturing, especially for smaller manufacturers.

“Sustainability is integral to American manufacturing’s continued global leadership and growth,” said Sutton.

“SMART showcases U.S. companies that have become more competitive and profitable through sustainable production practices, helping other businesses learn from these successes.”

One of the struggles small to medium-sized manufacturers face is how to implement sustainable practices that fit within the company budget.

“The idea was the big huge companies had the overhead to do all the research, and offices to go around and help apply sustainable manufacturing techniques,” said Sutton. “Smaller-sized manufacturers aren’t really aware or don’t get to see some of these best practices.”

To further help engage small to mid-sized manufacturers in becoming sustainable, the Environmental Protection Agency started the Green Suppliers Network. In this network, large manufacturers work with smaller suppliers to cut down on waste and help them become more efficient.

Fred Keller, chairman and CEO of Cascade Engineering, a provider of plastics solutions for the automotive, industrial and solid waste industries, said focusing on sustainability also brings other benefits. From a regional perspective, he said, as West Michigan sets itself apart as a center for sustainable manufacturing, it will attract more work from companies that have the same interests, and also will attract new talent.

At Steelcase, quality, sales, design and profits have all gone up since putting an emphasis on sustainability. Its Wood Products Plant was the first manufacturing site in the world to receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, earning silver ranking. Generally, when a building is built to LEED standards, the cost goes up in order to meet LEED requirements in areas such as air quality, water run-off, lighting, etc. The Steelcase building, however, was able to make up for those additional costs in its first 18 months.  BJ

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