Ellen Forde has seen the power small changes can have on a company’s bottom line. An engineering student working with UWM’s Industrial Assessment Center (IAC), Forde is part of a student team that helps companies find ways to reduce energy usage, waste and costs.
“Zero waste was a long-term goal of one of the companies we assessed, but they were having trouble getting employees to participate in recycling,” she says. The remedy, she remembers, was simple geography. “I suggested they move where they sorted recycling so that no one was passing by the [non-recyclable] trash collection area.”
The potential for energy efficiency and environmental benefit is highest in industrial manufacturing, which consumes about a quarter of the electricity in the U.S. and is responsible for about the same amount of CO2 emissions as cars, says IAC Director Chris Yuan.
Backed by more than $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, the IAC at UWM is the only such center in Wisconsin and the largest of the 24 funded nationwide. Additional funding comes from UWM and Wisconsin Focus on Energy.
So far this year, the IAC has assessed 15 companies on its way to an annual target of 20.
“Wisconsin is an excellent place for this center because we only work with small and medium-sized manufacturing companies,” says Yuan, also an assistant professor of engineering. “Of the top manufacturing companies in the state, more than 90 percent are this size.”
IAC recommendations save clients an average of $50,000 a year, with a typical payback on investment of 1.5 years, although it could be as short as a few months.
“The savings figure depends on the company practices, its size, whether they use old equipment and whether they implement all the recommendations,” says Yuan, who worked with companies like Ford and General Motors on green manufacturing practices before coming to UWM in 2009. “We also work with Focus on Energy, which offers incentives for upgrading to more energy-efficient equipment.”
Training, but also access
Training students in the growing field of industrial energy-system assessment is another priority of the center. An even mix of graduate and undergraduate students this semester is supervised by five UWM faculty members and one postdoctoral researcher, Yanan Yue.
Students usually have limited opportunities to gain access to a company and see all the levels of operations during college, says Yuan. Through the IAC, students have applied efficiency strategies to a wide range of manufacturers – from foundries to food processers – and witnessed how each business approaches waste issues.
Forde’s work with the center has given her a clearer picture of what a career in engineering might entail. “On my first assessment, that’s when it hit me – this is what engineers do,” she says. “Before, I didn’t have an exact picture in my mind.”
Another lesson she learned is that recycling is still viewed as a linear process, both economically and environmentally. IAC teams have a chance to present new options.
“In one company, they had ‘hot areas,’ where the hand tools could reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” Forde says. “So we recommended recovering that heat for use in a combustion process.”
In addition to strategies, students try to quantify the results of their suggestions for their clients, says Yue.
On a recent plant assessment at Carlisle Interconnect Technologies in Franklin, students suggested the company invest in lighting sensors and purchase a cardboard baler because recycling companies pay more for baled cardboard. The team also recommended the company install its air compressor intake at a cooler location in the plant, says Yue. The move increases the mass flow rate of the air, saving energy in the process.