How Product Design Impacts Energy Management: Q&A with Shaw Industries

by | Jul 28, 2017

Shifting an organization’s culture requires a willingness to challenge the status quo and step outside the comfort zone, says Charles Chapman, director of energy and reliability engineering for Shaw Industries. Chapman’s group at the global flooring product company used to focus primarily on the engineering side of operations, but the introduction of company-wide energy intensity reduction goals meant they had to branch out.

“Today, we’re working with our product development, marketing, and sales teams,” Chapman says. “It’s more of a holistic view of energy efficiency and energy management. We’re trying to establish a bigger partnership at multiple levels within the organization.”

Chapman spoke about the impact of product design on energy management at the 2017 Environmental Leader Conference in June. We caught up with him recently to learn how he and his team are following the thread of energy through their organization.

Where does the company’s energy footprint come from, particularly in relation to the products?

We have two primary product categories: soft-surface products, which are typically fiber-based carpet products, and hard surface products that include hardwood, laminate, and luxury vinyl tile. We have commercial consumer groups, typically places like hospitals, hotels, and office buildings. Then we have the residential consumer group going to the big box stores, to a local retailer, and in some cases ordering the products online to install in their homes.

Our commercial customers are probably the most interested in energy efficiency, yet that group doesn’t influence our overall energy footprint as much as residential does. The residential side is the bigger opportunity. A lot of that has to do with the construction of the products. This led us to take a deeper dive into the sub-processes in our product categories to understand the design characteristics consumers want and the energy required to get those characteristics.

What parts of the production process are energy intensive?

Carpet is typically made of either a nylon or a polyester polymer, so it’s plastic. We’ve got to take that plastic in a resin form, melt it, and extrude it into the face fiber that goes into the product, the soft piece. That is a common process regardless of whether it’s for a commercial or residential customer. This is a large consumer of our overall energy.

The second large consumer of energy, which is more on the residential side, is a dyeing process where we apply color into that extruded fiber. That requires a tremendous amount of steam, what we call thermal energy, and we’re having to challenge our organization technically about what we can do to lessen the amount of energy that’s required from a steam perspective.

What’s the difference between nylon and polyester?

Polyester products are much more energy-intensive than nylon products. They require more steam because polyester is not as receptive to the dyeing process as nylon. Polyester also has a higher melt temperature. It goes to a semi-liquid, more viscous form at a hotter temperature than nylon does. In the extrusion process, we’re extruding polyester and nylon on the same equipment so I’ve got to get my polyester extrusion equipment hotter.

Some of our polyester comes from recycled bottles. We have our own recycling facility where we collect consumer plastic bottles, chip those out, and melt them back into our fiber extrusion. Our nylon comes from a chemical type called caprolactam, and that is a virgin process. The cost of nylon is typically higher than polyester because of the raw material price.

What steps are you taking to reduce the energy required for manufacturing carpet?

We’ve done lighting projects, waste heat recovery, and air compressor optimization. We’ve done everything we can on the utility side as far as how efficient the energy that we consume into the process is delivered. Last year, that got us to a 16% improvement in energy intensity over our baseline period. Our goal is a 40% reduction in energy intensity by 2030.

As we’ve looked at all the projects, we just don’t see a lot of technically innovative changes in the equipment we use to make products where we can buy the latest and greatest and get better results. About this time last year I started saying that we could see the end of the runway. We needed to be more holistic in engaging with other parts of the organization to take energy out.

One of the guys who works for me started looking at a very high-volume high-sales-dollar product. He mapped the manufacturing process and the energy that those products consume from the start, where we polymerize the PET or nylon, all the way through to the finished product. That’s what’s going on today. We’re measuring energy content, and we’re focusing on the really high-volume stock.

How are you measuring the energy?

The measurement is good old-fashioned grunt work taking measurements from temporary meters while we’re making products, and on the equipment where we can get measurements we’re using process parameters that we have in our manufacturing processes. We have set points and actual flows of steam or flows of material, line speeds that can be converted into amp draw and then converted into a watt.

We’re using our best engineering estimates on what some of the content is where we can’t measure. We’ve not invested in fancy software or metering. Being able to put meters on temporarily and use other assets we’ve already got in the field is a much better way to get the information we need in front of the right people today. It’s a common sense, hands-on engineering approach.

Have you seen changes since this process started?

The culture shift is beginning. Our folks doing product development are looking at how they design and construct products to move to processes that are less energy intensive. I see more questions and engagement from our team on that side of the house in trying to understand. Our next step is to say we’re going to go design a purpose-filled product that is as low an energy-intensive product as possible.

What are the main challenges for you and your team?

One is making people [in the company] more aware of the difference in energy content in our products. When you’re in a manufacturing environment, these guys are thinking, “I’ve got to make product that sells, that’s whatever the consumer wants.” We’re trying to get them to pause and think about things they can do to influence what the consumer might want. Information is power.

Another is our willingness to get out of our comfort zone as a product manufacturer and break the cycle of “well, we’ve always made it this way, and if we change it we’re going to have a negative impact on a different characteristic of the product.” We’re having to challenge our technical organization: Why do you have to melt that particular product at this temperature? Is there another way we can adjust the equipment to get the same result but to do it with less energy? Why do we have to have certain set points for steam consumption? What’s the evidence that this is the way we’ve got to do it?

What have been the biggest lessons learned so far?

Right now we are getting data for a cross-section of all our different product types. We’re going to begin to spread that information through the organization so that our leadership — in sales, marketing, product development, operations — is more aware of the components that dictate energy use, the energy footprint, and their associated costs. You’ve got to “dollarize” everything when you’re in a commodity business. Dollars speak more than a BTU per pound. Then they can see potential benefits to the organization beyond just the environmental piece.

I’m an engineer and it is very unusual for an engineer to have conversations with people in product development, sales, and marketing. One piece of advice I give anybody working in this space is you’ve got to engage more cross-functionally across the organization than you ever thought you would to get lasting results. Now that I’m there, I see the level of interest from people outside the traditional technical operational areas, and it’s powerful.

Charles Chapman spoke about the impact of product design on energy management at the 2017 Environmental Leader Conference in Denver.

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