By Christopher Gardner,
Director of marketing and business development at Harbec Inc.
Forty-five years ago, Bob Bechtold founded Harbec Inc., a contract manufacturer based in Ontario, N.Y. Over the decades, expertise in plastic injection molding, CNC machining, and 3D additive processes has helped establish a loyal customer base in critical medical, industrial, and military sectors — whose needs are highly demanding.
But Bechtold’s vision for the company extended far beyond just its mechanical capabilities. Early on, he committed to making Harbec operations a true environmentally responsible manufacturing alternative and an example for us all. Though it may seem odd to look to a plastics manufacturer for environmental inspiration, the journey has proven to many that these initiatives are not only good for the planet but also, they can serve the bottom line. For nearly 10 years now, Harbec has been 100 percent carbon- and water-neutral.
Investments in wind, solar and geothermal technologies have generated a clear return on investment. They also provide a climate-controlled, modern work environment for employees, which has bred a culture of heightened awareness around every decision. Can this process be performed with less water? Can cycle times be reduced to decrease energy consumption? Are alternative materials available that are recyclable, less toxic, and made with no fossil renewable ingredients? Can it be made lighter and packed more efficiently to reduce transportation costs and the associated pollutants? Every process and activity is questioned to address the three P’s: people, planet, and profit.
Establishing global credibility
Producing precise, sometimes highly complex, assemblies reliably can be challenging — even more so to do it in a way that is environmentally responsible. In 2013, Harbec achieved ISO 50001 and U.S. Department of Energy SEP (Superior Energy Performance) certifications, which is essentially an internationally recognized commitment to operating a facility-wide energy management system.
By 2021, the department had awarded Harbec “Platinum” status — its highest honor — for the third time as a company that, documented by third-party audits, goes above and beyond DOE’s certification requirements.
As more businesses attempt to manage their brand around sustainability messaging, implementing actual processes can be perplexing. While many utility companies appear to rally around saving energy, the irony is that to exist, they need consumers to buy their product, which is in fact energy consumption.
While company homepages are often riddled with “How to Save Energy” tips, utility companies understand their biggest users are the manufacturers that require vast amounts of heat, electricity, and water to build products and provide services. Ironically, for those companies interested in installing true energy-saving technologies, utility companies have proven to be among their biggest obstacles. Rather than rewarding a company for improving energy efficiencies, they incentivize consumption by offering significant savings to their highest-volume users.
Quantitative and qualitative results
A homeowner can install energy-saving technologies — often with government incentives — and calculate the ROI with relatively simple math. For a manufacturer, the task is much more daunting.
“Initially, we were excited to tell people we were doing things that were good for the planet,” Bechtold recalls. “But if we wanted to get bank financing to support our efforts, it often fell on deaf ears and customers, too, were more interested in understanding the economic benefits for them. So, we began to quantify everything.
“At first blush,” he notes, “the cost of a renewable energy installation may appear substantial. But today’s turbines are built to perform for up to 25 years, and solar panels can produce reliably for up to 30 years. By using the savings produced by the system to finance the investment, there is no real ‘out-of-pocket’ cost, and once complete, the returns skyrocket.”
Of course, when utility costs rise during the same period, the savings will be even more meaningful. And since renewable energy costs are unaffected by market volatility, Harbec is poised to provide more stable pricing to its customers.
There are other benefits as well. As consumer energy demands surge, power grids are becoming increasingly less stable and more vulnerable to outages. For manufacturers, that can mean production shutdowns, late deliveries, and costly recoveries. Having renewable energy and a soon-to-be-installed 1-megawatt storage on-site helps Harbec mitigate those risks — a message not lost on customers who depend on “just-in-time” deliveries and “lean” manufacturing processes.
Built for sustainability
As Harbec’s footprint has grown, so has its knowledge of sustainable practices and technologies. Beneath its new 30,000-square-foot expansion lies nearly 3 miles of tubing that produces radiant heat in the flooring. In the summer, hot water is captured from manufacturing processes and a geothermal pond is sent to an absorptive chiller and released as cold water for air conditioning. Daylight pours in from strategically placed clerestory windows, switching to energy-efficient LED lighting only as needed and when triggered by photoelectric sensors. Electric presses, not traditional hydraulic ones, hum quietly and up to 60 percent more efficiently. The building is designed to capture heat in the winter and exhaust as much as possible in the summer.
The overall effect is a work environment that is comfortably climate-controlled, noticeably quieter, and well-lit. Less obvious — and perhaps unexpected — benefits include an employee attrition rate that is a fraction of the industry average. With company program incentives and heightened awareness, many Harbec employees have made changes in their own homes and lifestyles to reflect the values they’ve acquired at work.
While visits to manufacturing facilities around the world often require hearing protection and do not always extend air conditioning or filtration to workers in the plant, customer visits to Harbec can offer a very different experience. Conversations can take place uninhibited — and are encouraged — between a customer and machine operator to arrive at solutions in real-time at the point of production. Creativity has soared since these new practices and installations have taken effect.
The concept of circularity
The guiding principle of “circularity” as it pertains to the economy is to “reduce by design.” This applies to both products and services and, again, begins by raising awareness.
In a circular economy, a product is made to be used longer, and at the end of its use cycle, it is repaired, repurposed, or recycled to create another product from the same material(s). It is estimated that only about 9 percent of the global economy is truly “circular.”
At Harbec, the energy produced using renewable resources is “grid-connected,” meaning it is sold to the utility company, and Harbec repurchases only what it needs from 100 percent green power sources.
The important role of storage
Most people understand that utilities sell at higher rates during peak use hours. But, in fact, utilities also purchase at higher rates during the same hours. Therefore, the energy that is created by wind and/or solar can be stored for resale during peak hours and repurchased during off-hours at a profit. It doesn’t matter when the energy was created; the greater the storage facility, the greater the profit potential that can be realized.
Brand messaging and delivery
Europe has been ahead of the United States in recognizing the significance of embracing sustainability initiatives. An ESG (environmental, social, and governance criteria) score has been used for years to measure a company’s performance in each of these three categories. This year, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is proposing that public companies in the U.S. be held accountable by third-party auditors to publish their ratings in their quarterly and annual reports.
Greenwashing, or the practice of making unsubstantiated or false claims about the sustainability of a product or service for marketing purposes, will no longer be tolerated.
This new ruling is poised to create a tremendous branding opportunity for both Harbec and its customers that wish to market their product with “green” messaging. An ISO 50001 SEP facility is fully audited and committed to continuous improvement. And though more manufacturers claim to be ISO 50001 ready, only about 300 facilities qualify as SEP.
Open learning and sharing
Like most companies that provide services to government and medical suppliers, much of Harbec’s work is considered highly confidential. By contrast, Harbec has chosen to share its sustainability tracking by treating it as “open source.” In this way, others can learn from the experience. (In fact, anyone can see how these installations are performing through a live portal available at webcontrol.harbec.com. Just type GUEST in the login and leave the password blank.)
From the dashboard, you can see if wind turbines are active and how much energy they are producing; what the current temperature of the geothermal pond is; temperature changes after completing a loop through chillers and the plant; what outside conditions are: airspeed, temperature, humidity, etc.; and if excess energy is being created, how much is restored to the grid.
By sharing performance data in real-time without restriction, Harbec hopes to raise awareness for its customers and the general population so that we can all be inspired.
Perspective: Injection molder Harbec’s green initiatives deliver bottom-line results
Though it may seem odd to look to a plastics manufacturer for environmental inspiration, the journey has proven to many that these initiatives are not only good for the planet — they can serve the bottom line.