In many cases, environmental performance goals are fully aligned with the metrics that automotive companies already strive to optimize. Efficient, high-quality processes mean less material wasted as scrap and lower energy consumption, for example. But the pursuit of zero emissions is encouraging the adoption of new approaches and technologies too.
Generating the energy required to power assembly activities from renewable sources is a relatively straightforward way to cut carbon emissions at the plant level. Some carmakers choose to buy renewable energy from external providers and import it through the grid, but a growing number are taking a more active role in power generation. Ford has partnered with U.K. renewables company Ecotricity to install three wind turbines that power its engine production site in Dagenham, East London. Tesla says its Gigafactory lithium battery plant in the U.S. state of Nevada will run entirely on renewable energy sources. The rooftop solar array planned for the site is expected to be the largest such site installation in the world.
To avoid the energy expenditure required for the primary production of materials and reduce end-of-life waste, carmakers are turning to the use of recycled materials. In Japan, Nissan melts down used aluminium wheels at its Yokohama plant, for example, and uses the metal to produce components for new vehicles. It has also developed a process for the recycling of bumpers damaged in accidents. The broken parts are collected by dealerships and ground down into pellets that can be used in the manufacture of new parts. Automotive players are also exploiting external sources of recycled materials. Used plastic bottles, for example, can be transformed into polyester fibres for interior trim or acoustic insulation panels.
Grinding or melting down used parts still consumes energy, of course, as does transforming that material back into a usable product. To avoid those inputs, the industry is ramping up its "remanufacturing" activities. Remanufacturing involves the collection of worn or damaged components from repair shops or vehicle dismantlers and overhauling those parts to "like-new" condition so they can be returned to the market. As well as making new parts for many major automotive OEMs, tier-one supplier GKN remanufactures more than 600,000 drive shafts every year at plants in France and Spain. The company says its process requires 80 percent less steel than the manufacture of a new component. It has even developed a process that collects and reprocesses excess grease from its OE production lines, then uses that material to lubricate remanufactured parts.