At 5.4 million square feet, Nissan’s assembly plant in Smyrna, TN, is one of North America’s largest. The 28-year-old facility—the first Japanese auto plant built in
the U.S.—is also one of the greenest in any industry. Smyrna’s rich variety of ongoing, successful and growing sustainability efforts is a key to why Nissan North America was honored as a 2010 ENERGY STAR Partner of Year. The award, which also honors two other Nissan North America plants and its headquarters building in
Franklin, TN, cites the company for scoring in the top 25% of energy-efficient facilities in the U.S. and for making sustainability an unshakable part of its mission and culture. In Smyrna, real sustainable savings are a daily reminder of what green teamwork can accomplish and a driver to do more.
“In 2005, our vice president of manufacturing Bill Krueger [now senior vice president of Nissan Americas] really challenged us to start focusing on energy and the waste of energy,” says Mike Clemmer, the Smyrna paint plant manager and 22-year Nissan veteran. “We had ‘green weekends’ where he challenged us to get through with using as little energy as possible.” With sustainability long a focus in Japan, and energy costs rising around the world, Krueger took the initiative to broaden the concept in Smyrna. He formed the plant’s first energy team a year before Nissan formally introduced its company-wide Manufacturing Competitiveness Teams. And because the paint department was the plant’s top energy user, Krueger put Clemmer’s predecessor in charge of a newly formed energy team to find ways to reduce energy consumption. When the team quickly found fairly simple ways to cut usage by 11%, Krueger expanded team ranks.
“We then had members from all across the plant: purchasing, legal, manufacturing, maintenance, even HR,” says Clemmer. From 2006 to 2008, the energy team found ways to reduce the plant’s overall energy use an additional 30% using a two-part approach. “One side was simply to look at how you operate the plant,” he says, “to be cognizant of turning things off and reducing waste.” Conveyors were turned off during breaks and other periods of non-use, for example, rather than kept running. Lights were turned off where they weren’t needed, notably in the section of the body shop where only robots were stationed. “The robots don’t care if it’s dark or light,” says Clemmer.
The second part of the approach was to look at capital expenditures that could reduce energy use. Lighting emerged as a top contender. “We had metal halide and sodium vapor lighting throughout the plant,” says Clemmer, “and in 2007 there were federal tax incentives for going to higher-efficiency lighting. So, we relamped the entire facility with high-efficiency fluorescent lighting using T5 and T8 fixtures. They provided a better quality light than what we had before, and we were able to reduce about a third of the fixtures.” This not only reduced the plant’s use of electricity for lighting by about half, the tax incentive provided a relatively short payback time of two years.
While the Smyrna plant’s energy-saving initiative began in a low-key way with technicians “just looking for areas where they knew they could conserve,” it rapidly grew more organized and focused, says Mark Little, stamping maintenance manager and 19-year company veteran. One of the plant’s key sustainable efforts involved the compressed air used to power his department’s 30 stamping presses that form vehicle body panels. “The presses would run even in idle times with compressed air on them,” he says, adding that because compressed-air systems are never leak-free, this became an obvious area where waste could be trimmed. All they needed to do was find out where to shut off the air to the presses and create a shutdown procedure for operators.
The search began with the maintenance team identifying air valves on or near each press. “And as we developed shutdown procedures, we realized we could incorporate production requests and needs into our plan,” says Little. The bonus came when the team solicited input from production technicians “who found even more areas where we could cut air consumption.” Formal shutdown procedures were drawn up that added other energy users, like hydraulics, into the process to ensure maximum effect and a completely safe shutdown. “We used one line as a model to see what we could do,” says Little. “We charted results, then began to implement those on other lines. Now the entire facility is shut down in the proper fashion and is saving us compressed-air usage.” Compared with figures from one year ago, the stamping plant now uses nearly 60% less compressed air.
For Little, his department’s compressed-air success was the start of the high level of employee involvement in sustainability efforts that has become common at Smyrna. “We don’t have to ask and solicit ideas from people any more,” he says. “They come to us. Some weeks we get so many ideas, it’s like a puzzle trying to put them all together and see what we can do.”
Clemmer agrees, and also credits current vice president of manufacturing Susan Brennan, who took over Bill Krueger’s position in 2009. “Sustainability is one of her passions,” he says, noting that Brennan’s arrival was well-timed in advance of the company’s imminent production of the LEAF, Nissan’s 100% electric car. “We know the customer who buys this vehicle is going to be very interested in how environmentally friendly the processes are that produce it,” he says. “Susan has brought us a real focus and made it personal. There are people at every level who are very passionate about the environment, and giving them tools and knowledge about how we can reduce our footprint here has really taken on a life of its own.”
Green life at Smyrna
“I’m a big advocate of green,” says Sherri Gentry, a senior manager and 27-year Nissan veteran. “I don’t know that you’d call me a tree hugger, but I compost at home, I recycle and do other things like that because they’re the right thing to do.”
Gentry seemed a logical choice to enact Brennan’s idea for a plant green team that would complement the energy team. “I was thrilled she asked me because I’m so passionate about it,” says Gentry, who then expanded the idea by forming not one, but four teams devoted to finding ways to make the 3400-employee facility more sustainable. “We have an administration team, a manufacturing team, a grounds-and-community team and a communication-and-engagement team with about 210 passionate members,” she says, most of whom are production technicians. “We get the biggest bang for our buck from these guys.”
In their first six months of operation, the groups chalked up an impressive $925,000 in savings from all sectors and in all amounts, says Gentry. Some are as small as $100 a year, others in six figures, such as the $136,000 the company will no longer spend annually to dispose and replace metal shipping brackets. Used to hold engines in place during transit from Nissan’s powertrain plant in Decherd, TN, the brackets had for years been discarded after a single use, making them a standout example of wasteful operations. “We first decided to recycle them,” says Gentry, “but then we took it a step farther and just sent them back to Decherd on the truck that brings the engines.” The brackets are now reused repeatedly, as are other once-disposed shipping items like plastic covers and cardboard boxes. “And when these wear out,” says Gentry, “we recycle them.”
Gentry’s long list of similar examples includes a favorite that was guided by green-team member Kim Brewer, paint plant technician and 25-year company veteran. It involves a team member’s idea for a new masking process on Nissan pickup trucks that is expected to save the company more than $70,000 annually.
“We were using a one-inch foam strip with adhesive backing that was made specifically for Nissan,” says Brewer. Used to create a clean break line where paint and bedliner meet, the tape was $400 per case. At four cases per week, “it was quite costly,” says Brewer. “One of our techs came up with an idea to use a rubberized magnetic strip that could be cleaned and used over and over.” Through trial and error, Brewer’s team found the right type of magnetic strip that would adhere effectively and could be cleaned for multiple reuse. The cost for a year’s supply: $1000. “It comes on a big roll and we just cut it ourselves,” says Brewer. “Once it goes through the spray zone, we peel the bedliner material off it and take it to the other end of the line and use it again. It lasts a long time.”
A big part of Gentry’s job is to track green-team savings —“what we do, when we do it, who does it, what the savings are and how they were calculated”—and report results to Brennan. But she admits there is still much to learn, especially about defining the effect of green-team actions in non-monetary terms, such as trees saved or carbon footprint reduced. The many sustainable efforts she guides that do not translate to direct savings for the company also make this necessary. “We’ve had little programs like ‘Ban the Bottle’ for plastic water bottles,” she says, “and a grocery-bag initiative where we give employees bags to use at the grocery store to teach them what sustainability is all about.” Similarly, the plant distributed CFLs (compact fluorescent lightbulbs) to employees and invited vendors in the plant to promote energy-saving products like programmable thermostats and efficient heating/cooling systems and appliances.
The Smyrna plant also recently placed employee-use recycling bins in the parking lot for cardboard, plastic bottles, aluminum and scrap metal. “These are things we send out to recycle for money anyway,” says Gentry, who adds that the extra income from this project could fund others, such as the team’s plan to compost Smyrna’s cafeteria waste. “We want to do it onsite with our own compost container and use a decommissioned robot from our body shop to stir it,” she says. “We’ve benchmarked several places that do this, and it should save us a tremendous amount. It will show that we’re not just a green company, but that we’re really green, and we’re not throwing away anything.”
Nissan believes in the many dedicated, visible efforts underway in Smyrna. Teams from Smyrna work regularly with those from Japan and other Nissan facilities around the world to continuously improve sustainability measures. It’s understood that, in addition to being right for the environment, the company’s sustainability culture “keeps us competitive,” says Gentry. “Everybody knows it’s a hard fight out there. And when we find cost savings, we give them to the customer.”
Smyrna team leaders and members also understand how much depends on employees’ ongoing acceptance and practice of sustainability concepts in their lives, not just on the job. “We want all of our employees to take it personally,” says Clemmer. “We want them to learn. And if we can help employees understand how they can save money at home, we hope they’ll bring that same mindset back to work because we’ll all benefit from it in the end.” MT
According to the Department of Energy, there are five key reasons why Nissan North America, Inc., won the 2010 ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year Award. Based on activities that took place during the 2009 calendar year at the company’s three vehicle-assembly and powertrain plants in the U.S. and Mexico, and its headquarters facility in Franklin, TN, Nissan was recognized for: