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INTERVIEW #1: VDI ZRE on resource efficiency and cutting costs in the metal and plastic processing sectors

Posted on: 19.02.2018
by The EREK team

The VDI Centre for Resource Efficiency (VDI ZRE) is the national competence centre for resource efficiency in Germany and a core partner of the EREK network. The centre is closely connected with the VDI Association of German Engineers. With more than 150,000 members, it is the largest association of engineers in Germany and brings experts together for interdisciplinary dialogue while propagating knowledge of current developments in science and research, economy, society and policy.

VDI ZRE produces information and tools that help SMEs implement resource efficiency measures. In cooperation with regional partners, VDI ZRE also connects companies with local experts and support programs available in Germany.

The centre has extensive experience in the sectors of metal and plastic processing. The EREK editorial team asked them how SMEs can become more resource efficient and what they should keep in mind when reviewing their production processes.

  • Material cost is the first cost in metal processing. How can this cost be reduced?

There are several strategies or measures that can be implemented to improve material efficiency, and hence reduce material costs. In general, these measures are related to the core production processes of a company or to the product itself.

Within nearly every production process, rejects are created. However, the amount of waste created is often not known with exactitude. An important first step is to monitor processes and materials flows. This will help identify approaches for improving efficiency. Optimising process parameters can often already lead to a reduction of input materials and waste. In some cases, it might turn out that materials that have so far been treated as waste are still valuable and can be used within the company or by other businesses as raw material.

As for the product, resource efficiency can be achieved as early as the design phase. For example, you could consider changing the materials of the product to materials with recycled content, or minimising the amount of material required by realising a lightweight design.

  • Metal and plastic industries are also very energy intensive. What are the key elements of the production process where energy could easily be saved but are often overlooked by SMEs?

For improving energy efficiency, it is important to know where the major energy consuming processes or devices are located in a company. Sometimes simple measures, such as insulating devices or pipes to reduce waste heat, can lead to significant savings. Often the consumption of energy caused by the generation of compressed air is underestimated. Regular maintenance of compressed air systems, and eliminating leakages, can help reduce overall energy costs significantly.

  • Waste is also a big part of resource efficiency. Cost savings associated to better waste management are now widely known, however there is still untapped potential.  For instance, recycling is usually quite advanced in the metal industry, but are there still areas for improvements? Similarly, how can plastic innovation help reduce plastic waste?

Even though the metal industry is quite advanced in recycling, SMEs often do not fully exploit their recycling potential. Collecting waste materials separately – such as by collecting different alloys separately – could increase the value that can be obtained by selling the waste material afterwards. Furthermore, setting up internal recycling processes can be another opportunity for increasing resource efficiency within the company.

In addition, if a company has implemented, or is thinking of implementing, internal recycling of plastic rejects in the injection moulding process, they should consider using ‘adaptive process control’ technology. This will allow them to use recycled synthetic granules and ensure the quality of components made of recycled materials.

SMEs seeking to develop and implement their resource efficiency strategy will find valuable resources on the EREK website. Alongside information on national contact points like VDI, they will find examples of measures, technologies and good practices, as well as currently available support programmes to help them in their endeavours.