Making Manufacturing More Sustainable

Sustainability is quickly becoming more important to manufacturers, and Georgia Institute of Technology researchers are helping companies focus on this important area. Scientists and engineers are helping reduce the environmental impact of materials, products and manufacturing processes; developing reverse production systems for recovering and reusing waste, and promoting sustainability in packaging.

Supporting Sustainable Manufacturing

Georgia Tech School of Mechanical Engineering professor Bert Bras, who leads the Sustainable Design and Manufacturing (SDM) Program in the MaRC, focuses on reducing the environmental impact of materials, products and manufacturing processes, while increasing their competitiveness.

The SDM group gets a large share of its research funding from industry. Together with MaRC research engineer Tina Guldberg, Bras and his group are currently working with Ford, GM and Boeing on projects related to sustainable manufacturing. Much of their work centers on a better understanding of the overall effect of manufacturing operations, as well as potential unintended consequences of product, process and business decisions over their life cycle.

One technique developed by Bras and his students involves the inclusion of environmental impact measures such as energy and water consumption in activity-based cost models. In this way, a single assessment model can quantify financial and environmental consequences of manufacturing process choices.

With Marc Weissburg, a professor in the School of Biology and co-director of the Center for Bio-Inspired Design, Bras and his team are working on an NSF-funded project focused on the role of biologically inspired design in industrial manufacturing networks.

Bras is also collaborating with professor Nancey Green Leigh of the School of City and Regional Planning and professor Steven French of the College of Architecture on an NSF-funded project that studies methods of boosting product and material recovery in urban areas for use in local manufacturing. Leigh and French are also focusing in this grant on quantifying the amount of carpet and electronic waste generated in a metropolitan area and the economic benefits of diverting it from landfills, thereby creating business and job opportunities.

Recovering and Reusing Waste

Jane Ammons, who is the H. Milton and Carolyn J. Stewart School Chair in the Georgia Tech School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, collaborates on reverse production systems with Matthew Realff, a professor in the School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering. For more than 10 years, the team has focused on two important areas: the recovery and reuse of carpet wastes and ways to reduce electronic waste.

Ammons, Realff and their teams have developed a mathematical framework to support the growth of used-carpet collection networks. Such networks could help to recycle much of the 3.4 billion pounds of carpet waste currently produced in the United States annually. Research indicates that successful reuse of that carpet has a potential value of at least $850 million, versus a disposal cost of at least $60 million for simply sending it to landfills.

In other work, the team is studying the problem of e-waste – unwanted electronic components such as televisions, monitors and computer boards and chips. The e-waste stream includes hazardous materials such as lead and other toxins, yet effective management and reuse of e-components can be profitable. Ammons and Realff have devised mathematical models that address the complexities of e-waste processing, with the goal of helping recycling companies stay economically viable.

Promoting Manufacturing Sustainability

In a recent project, associate professor Chen Zhou in the Georgia Tech School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, working with professor Leon McGinnis, tackled sustainability issues for a major U.S. manufacturer. The issue involved shipping gearbox components from China to the United States in ways that would minimize not only cost but also greenhouse gas emissions and waste.

It turned out that packaging was at the heart of the issue. The researchers had to configure component packaging so that the maximum number of components could be placed in a cargo container, yet also allow for optimal recycling of the packing materials to avoid waste and unnecessary cost.

“This was definitely a complex problem,” Zhou said. “You must track every piece of packaging from its source to its final resting place, when it either goes into another product or into a landfill.”

The team created a model – a globally sourced auto parts packaging system – that optimized cargo container space. The model also enabled the use of packing materials that were fully reusable; some materials went back to China for use in future shipments, while the rest was recycled into plastics for new vehicles.

The information above was part of an article on advanced manufacturing research at Georgia Tech that was published in the Winter 2012 issue of Research Horizons, Georgia Tech’s research magazine. To read the entire article, please visit (