Nowadays in the car industry, if you're not "going green" in some way, you're not doing your part to minimize human impact on the world. Some, like Subaru, are taking "going green" to an extreme level and have not only implemented eco-friendly tech in their vehicles, but have also converted their production facilities into modern minimum-waste locations. Subaru of Indiana Automotive Inc., located in Lafayette, Indiana, is the automaker's pride and joy when it comes to its green North American production plants. And I got the full inside tour.
Rs and 0s
SIA is a zero-landfill plant, and according to executives, it was the first of its kind in the car industry. Since May 4, 2004, SIA has sent none of its waste to local landfills. That's right -- zero, nil, nada, nothing. SIA recycles 99.6 percent of its waste, and incinerates the remaining 0.4 percent. Companies such as Frito-Lay and Raytheon tour its 832-acre campus to better understand the intricacies of zero landfill.
SIA transitioned from being moderately mindful of its environmental footprint to full zero landfill status in less than a year after becoming fully owned by Subaru parent company Fuji Heavy Industries. (Built in 1986, the plant was owned and operated jointly by Subaru and Isuzu. Toyota now fills some of Isuzu's void.)
So how does a 3.4-million-square-foot plant that produces 260,000 Legacies, Outbacks, and Tribecas, plus 95,000 Toyota Camrys every year recycle so much byproduct?
Here are some ways:
• Power in the People: It all begins with SIA's 3500 employees and their collective mentality of helping the environment. A spirit of kaizen, or the desire to become better, permeates the facility's ultra-filtered air. This isn't just some corporate mantra. Rather, it's an idea everyone subscribes to.
On a physical level, employees are urged to participate in daily group stretches led by an accredited trainer, and there is a health and wellness center on the premises. In SIA's eyes, a healthy company is made of healthy associates.
• Lean Lines: Every SIA associate is conscious of waste. The term encompasses unnecessary excess in all forms, such as waste in time, production, and efficiency, as well as manufacturing byproducts. Efficient and lean production lines help to produce vehicles quicker (a new Subaru rolls off the line every 1.5 to 1.7 seconds) with fewer build mistakes and worker injuries.
Automated robots bring pre-sorted parts bins to workers, ensuring a speedy installation. Above the floor is a ceiling lined with miles of conveyor belt moving individual parts to a specific areas.
Barrels and bins near each line make recycling easy. Employees are urged to participate in bettering their workplace and can earn a $500 bonus by suggesting a successfully implemented way of improving efficiency and reducing waste.
• Savvy Suppliers: Subaru's request of its suppliers was simple: Provide us with only the materials we need. Take, for example, the stamping stage of production. The huge steel reams used to create car doors are delivered in smaller dimensions better suited for the part's form. Subaru formerly bought untrimmed steel that resulted in heaps of extra metal. Less material for the supplier equals less excess material for Subaru to discard.
On the shipping front, executives asked domestic suppliers to transport parts in reusable blue plastic bins instead of cardboard boxes. Those unable to make the switch, such as many international firms, were asked to cut their box tops in half or completely off in order to reduce cardboard use. Styrofoam used to ship delicate engine and transmission pieces between Indiana and Japan is now reused up to 15 times before it is refurbished. Nearly 85% of all SIA Styrofoam gets recycled in Japan; the same can be said of the little rubber caps found on the brand's Japanese-made transmissions.
Subaru prefers to buy American-made materials. And if it can be sourced from an American company closely situated to Lafayette, well, that makes the deal even sweeter. Nearby suppliers reduce road and rail congestion, not to mention shipping time and fuel usage. Plus, it's good for the local and national economies.
• Revised Robotics, Parts, and Production Chain: In 2008, Subaru changed from solvent-based paint to a "greener" water-based mixture. Paint sprayers evenly coat bodies with a new bell device running at 50,000 rpm in order to atomize the color. This creates less overspray and reduces paint per car to only one gallon.
Body and chassis welds are checked by ultrasound rather than by an older pick and hammer method. The same quick, less wasteful process is used by numerous automakers. Low-energy fluorescent bulbs light up the massive building's spotless concrete floors. Once the bulbs run their course, the glass is sold to a company that reuses it. Same goes for the copper used throughout the parts range, the encrusted buildup left behind on robot arms by the paint booth's electrodeposition bath, and the leftover plywood from transport palettes.
Workers get to and from stations on industrial pedal trikes, which are more efficient than walking. To piece together a car, assemblers and robots pull parts from "minomi" racks developed by Toyota. They're sort of jumbo-sized vending machines stocked with car parts. When one part is pulled out, another replaces it.
• Green Inside and Out: SIA's buildings -- which include the main plant, recreation center, training and reception center, child development center, and technical training building -- are situated next to 30 acres of low-maintenance prairie, five sizable retention ponds (some filled with bluegill and other freshwater fish), and scores of trees and shrubbery.
A team of employees is tasked with reintroducing native species and removing invasive ones. Deer, eagles, coyotes, ducks, and swans are a part of the vast ecosystem adjacent to the plant. Official bean counters have tallied 28 deer and three bucks roaming the secured land. SIA works closely with wildlife organizations like the WWF to make sure everything is done humanely and properly.
Every 20 minutes a random completed vehicle is taken to the 2-mile test track and dynamics lot to see if production is up to snuff, and there are signs along the bush-lined high-speed track warning drivers to look out for fauna.
Employees, their families, and Lafayette locals can utilize 5 kilometers' worth of unpaved trails set in the most scenic areas. There is a massive compost onsite for waste food and decomposable items.
And the growing "green" list goes on and on...
Like Fuji Heavy Industries, SIA also focuses on its surrounding communities. The plant sets aside time and money for various local non-profit organizations. It opens its facilities to the community for holiday events and charity walks, and donates money to local causes.
No doubt the zero-landfill SIA complex has many in the automotive industry filled with admiration, and a few automakers feeling green with envy.