When it comes to manufacturing, think lightweight

Is your company heavy-handed with precious resources? You could save money and create a more sustainable business model by rethinking your approach to materials
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

I don't watch boxing, so for me the term "lightweight" in the past had a slightly negative connotation. As in, something that couldn't quite pull its weight.

But these days, thinking lightweight is increasingly a very good thing. As in, lightweight vehicles use less fuel and therefore are greener. Or that it might be more sustainable and environmentally friendly over the long run to manufacture your products subbing certain expensive materials, such as titanium, with lightweight composites or other materials that might cost less AND be recycled more easily.

Enter companies like Fiberforge, a 12 year-old spin-off of the non-profit organization Rocky Mountain Institute, which is dedicated to business models that advocate better use of resources. Fiberforge has created unique turnkey manufacturing equipment called Relay, which is for the creation of thermoplastic advanced composites. These composites can be melted down and reused at the end of their (first) useful life.

Fiberforge CEO John Fox-Rubin says the company was initially focused on automotive makers, but quickly discovered those organizations have a higher threshold for accepting approaches that are not completely mature so it expanded its focus to include other sorts of products, notably high-performance sporting goods. But that hasn't stopped the company from finding a following with innovators in green design. One example is Mystery Ranch Backpacks. Using the Relay system, Mystery Ranch has created a new frame sheet for its products that weighs 57 percent than the previous materials it used (polyethylene) and takes one-tenth the time to fabricate. "Green is a relative term," Fox-Rubin says.

So far, roughly 150 products have been prototyped with the Relay system and 30 are in process.

What's doubly interesting about Fiberforge is that the company is itself using an innovative approach to keep improving its manufacturing equipment. Fiberforge is teamed with the Autodesk Clean Tech Program and its uses AutoCAD Electrical to design and build relay. Right now, the Relay equipment can produce a single part in less than three minutes.

Fox-Rubin says that the system today is 10 times faster than the first edition that the company developed, in large part due to the Autodesk design software. "It has helped us exceed our goals for throughput as a function of time," he says. "In the next year or so, we will be able to address the speed needed by the even higher volumes required by automotive partners."

So, how about it? Your manufacturing operation is probably already thinking "lean." As in, save as much money as possible. But has it considered how thinking lightweight and green might affect the equation?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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