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Prioritizing Water Reduction and Reclamation: Q&A with Ford’s Andy Hobbs

About 17 years ago, Ford Motor Company took a closer look at its water costs. The move was initially met with wonder, especially given that the automaker is headquartered in the Great Lakes region.

“When we build a car, we know the cost of every second for every employee,” says Andy Hobbs, director of the Environmental Quality Office at Ford Motor Company. “But we never really knew the cost of water. You’d get a water bill.”

So Ford began applying disciplined techniques to understanding the true cost of water. In those early days, they discovered substantial leaks underground and aboveground, Hobbs says. This led to a careful chronicle of water-related issues, which the automaker then tackled systematically starting with no-cost changes and progressing to ones that required investment. Since then, Ford has reduced water consumption by 10 billion gallons.

Hobbs will be talking about innovations in water reclamation at the 2017 Environmental Leader Conference in June. Recently we caught up with him to learn about Ford’s water goals and strategies for reaching them.

What are Ford’s current water goals?

In 2000 we identified water as a strategic imperative. Back then, people looked around and thought, why are you worried about water? We’re in Michigan surrounded by the Great Lakes and water was comparatively inexpensive. We eventually convinced a core of people that it was important to do. Over the past 15 years or so, we reduced our water consumption by about 60% on a unitized basis, and by 10 billion gallons on an absolute basis.

Our total cost for water stayed about the same — if we had not reduced our water consumption, water costs would have gone up substantially. That started to get people’s attention. Once we achieved our objective in 2015, we set a new goal of reducing by another 30% by 2020. On a unitized basis, we’ll probably be about 71% less per unit in terms of water use than in 2000.

The last few [percentage points] are difficult while we have evaporative cooling techniques. In parallel, we’re not going to use potable water in manufacturing. We’ll end up recycling our water onsite. In some places we’ll purchase gray or black water and treat it onsite to the standards we need. The objective is to enable the communities where we operate to have potable water. Clearly we have to provide potable water for our employees, but that’s the direction we’re taking now.

What steps are you taking to get there?

First, identifying and prioritizing water-stressed areas. We have facilities all over the world, and when you get to a facility like Hermosillo in the Sonoran Desert, we want to get the recycling in place. The communities have restrictions on water.

On top of that, we changed our processes to use less water. In powertrain plants we use minimum quantity lubrication so instead of having huge circulating water-based lubricants, we spritz a lubricant right at the cutting tool. It’s better because we don’t have all the circulating emulsions, and there’s virtually no water consumed. We also changed our paint processes to what we call ‘wet on wet on wet.’ That’s energy-efficient and reduces water.

To manage stormwater, we built a complex swale system with a green roof over a million square feet, which manages our strong water. Instead of washing contaminants into the Rouge River, we naturally attenuate it. Then we installed porous pavements. When you have concrete pavements and a storm event, the water runs off. Typically our facilities are close to or on bodies of water. We don’t want that water just running down.

We heard from other executives that water is still undervalued. Have you found that to be true?

In reality for what we’re getting and using, it is underpriced. But what we see happening is the aging infrastructure in the areas we operate driving cost increases. Pipes are rotten, the treatment plants need upgrading. They need to grow the circulation system. We operate all over the country and our water per unit in the Great Lakes region is more expensive than other areas.

We’re a very cost-conscious industry. People do not like to spend money they don’t have to, even on something as good as water conservation. The biggest challenge I see is developing accessibility to recycled water — developing affordable techniques to get water to the quality we need for manufacturing.

How is Ford working to add gray and black water to manufacturing?

We’re in discussion with states around the country and various countries, negotiating access agreements to gray and black water. We look at how we can help communities do that as well in cost-effective ways.

We talked about the 10 billion gallons we can save over 15 years. We can probably save 10 times that amount if we leverage our supply base globally. We developed a robust environmental operating system that includes water. We’re working with our suppliers globally, [saying] these are our techniques, this is our software, this is how we saved water and money. As we replicate the success with our supply base, we’re going to see even greater reductions.

Is there an example where technology made a big difference?

A perfect example: Fire mains underground and under pressure. You’d hear the jockey pump come on to re-pressurize the system, but we never knew why. No one thought anything of it until they started understanding the effect it had for water consumption. By installing a wireless water meter on the pipes, we were able to identify where water leaks were underground and repair them.

What’s next for Ford?

We continue to report our data with our friends at CDP. This is the second year running that we got an A grade on our water actions and conservation. It’s about transparency in our data. We all live in and around where our facilities are so we want to be good corporate citizens, good neighbors, and make sure we provide water to the community.

Andy Hobbs will be speaking at the Environmental Leader Conference in Denver June 5-7, 2017. His track, Innovations in Water Reclamation and Net-Zero Water Strategies, starts at 11:20 am on June 7.

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