Green manufacturing might seem like a flavor of the month. Perhaps it seems to have cropped up as “An Inconvenient Truth” hit the scene. But as John Sutherland will tell you, that’s not the case. Sutherland, an ASQ and SME member and professor of environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, has been involved in the field for almost twenty-five years.Management_IN

He has the unique experience of having an industrial engineering background and working in the quality field teaching Deming’s principles, and also promoting green manufacturing since the 1990s. Although these may seem like divergent paths, they are actually interconnected.


Traditional environmental engineering seemed to go in later to clean up a problem rather than prevent it from happening.

Instead of worrying about cutting fluids dripping onto the soil, consider getting rid of these fluids altogether.

By attacking the environmental challenge, it allows companies to make more money and lower costs.

As Sutherland points out, “One of the lessons of Deming is that you need to attack the root causes of problems. You can’t just treat the symptoms.”

Examining the manufacturing process from the start can help improve sustainability, and there are many different organizations available to help. First, understand what sustainable manufacturing is. According to the EPA, “Sustainable manufacturing is the creation of manufactured products through economically-sound processes that minimize negative environmental impacts while conserving energy and natural resources.”

Though sustainability may seem to be a trendy term today, the ideas of conserving energy and resources have been around for a long time. After all, waste isn’t something you aim to produce.

Getting Green

Around 1990 Sutherland started looking into the idea of greening manufacturing. Rather than relying on environmental engineering technologies to clean up a problem, i.e., treat the symptom, he pursued Deming’s approach—attack the root cause by preventing it from happening, he says. For example, consider cutting fluids. Instead of worrying about cutting fluid treatment, mist inhalation, filtering systems, and soil contamination, Sutherland worked with automakers to get rid of fluids altogether when possible. By attacking the root cause of the environmental challenge, it allows companies to lower costs and make more money.

And he’s been at this ever since. He notes that the first ten years or so were tough, but interest picked up around the early 2000s. Today, many more people are thinking about being green, and there are a lot of opportunities.

According to a 2013 report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), “Many suppliers are greening their practices in order to secure their positions within international supply chains. This is illustrated, for example, by the 1,500 percent increase in global ISO 14001 certifications in environmental management between 1999 and 2009.”

In addition to the interest in green certification, there is more investment in green projects. In August, the Energy Department announced more than $55 million would be spent on 31 new projects related to R&D for fuel efficiency.

Less Resources, Less Waste

But no matter what type of product you are manufacturing, Sutherland says it’s important to consider environmental opportunities: “If we have a waste stream, where can we intervene in the process to reduce the amount of waste, make it less hazardous, how should we be doing things differently to use less resources?”

Throughout the years, he’s seen examples of companies using a waste stream as a resource for another application. Other ways to be greener include remanufacturing, “leaning” a process chain, reducing energy consumption, or converting products into services. 

Although there may be plenty of areas for improvement in terms of greener processes, Sutherland says the problem is that too often people think being green is too expensive. The upside to being green is saving energy, using less resources, and producing less waste, so there’s a lot to gain. Of course, this isn’t a commonly accepted fact. When I spoke to Sutherland, earlier that week someone had asked him, ‘Don’t you have to pay more for greener products?’

“It’s like in the old days when Deming was asked, ‘Don’t you have to pay more for higher quality?’” Sutherland says. “Deming would note that quality and cost are competing objectives if you try to inspect quality into a product.  If, however, you attack the root causes of problems, then quality and cost can improve together,” Sutherland notes. The same principle applies to environmental issues. “Are you protecting the environment through filtering systems, waste treatment, ever tighter screening? This costs money.  I encourage people to think creatively and innovate; attack the true source of the issue—then you can be greener and save money.”

There has been much greater awareness of the concept of green manufacturing in the past five years or so. Many organizations have launched green manufacturing programs. As Sutherland says, “There’s a role for everyone. It doesn’t matter what your job is. Everyone can make a contribution to greener manufacturing.” He cites that while recycling end of life products is a great way to recover valuable materials and avoid disposing to landfills, the idea of remanufacturing is making inroads. Remanufacturing allows a used product to be put back into use, thus saving the energy and resources devoted to manufacturing the product in the first place.  While recycling is better than landfilling, it also destroys the manufacturing investment. With some materials—such as rare earth elements, which he is looking at now—this can be a substantial benefit. He’s also working with regional manufacturers on how they can more proactively use less energy.

And, Sutherland is just one contributor to a growing area. Today, there are a host of resources and experts focused on the topic of green manufacturing.

Professor David Dornfeld, chair of the department of mechanical engineering of the University of California-Berkeley, offers some tips on improving the sustainability of manufacturing in his blog, In a September post, he suggested:

“Benchmarking and providing metrics so that the organization can see where it is and where it needs to go. The days of “the flogging will continue ’til moral improves” are over!

Keep innovating; this is easily translatable to manufacturing; in fact, sustainability drives innovation in manufacturing.

Convert the tangible benefits of being sustainable to something that can be easily visualized; manufacturing is attempting to do this all the time—from a cost, performance, impact, efficiency or effectiveness aspect.”

This attention to green manufacturing is catching on in many different areas—not just on the factory floor. For example, the IMTS event at Chicago’s McCormick Place also promotes green initiatives. According to the show website, oil pumped out of machines at the show is sent to a recycler, crates are sent to a biofuel company, and the facility even has a rooftop garden.

Although green is catching on in many different areas, some might find it difficult to see the connection to quality. When asked if people understand the connection between green manufacturing and quality, Sutherland laughed. “The intersection of the two sets of people is pretty small. You’d had to have really understand Deming’s message, and understand that the key to green manufacturing is to innovate to attack the root causes of environmental challenges—to recognize that down deep it is philosophically the same issue.”

 With more money being devoted into research into green technologies and green certification, it appears that sustainability and quality are poised to overlap more in the future. Smart manufacturers may already be devoting resources to these types of projects.