Modern manufacturing methods inefficient in use of energy and materials

March 29th, 2009 - 1:17 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, March 29 (ANI): A detailed MIT analysis of the energy use of 20 major manufacturing processes has determined that modern manufacturing methods are spectacularly inefficient in their use of energy and materials.

The analysis indicated that new manufacturing systems are anywhere from 1,000 to one million times bigger consumers of energy, per pound of output, than more traditional industries.

For example, making microchips uses up orders of magnitude more energy than making manhole covers.

According to Professor Timothy Gutowski of MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, who led the analysis, such a broad comparison of energy efficiency is an essential first step toward optimizing new manufacturing methods as they gear up for ever-larger production.

“The seemingly extravagant use of materials and energy resources by many newer manufacturing processes is alarming and needs to be addressed alongside claims of improved sustainability from products manufactured by these means,” said Gutowksi and his colleagues.

Gutowksi notes that manufacturers have traditionally been more concerned about factors like price, quality, or cycle time, and not as concerned over how much energy their manufacturing processes use.

“This latter issue will become more important, however, as the new industries scale up, especially if energy prices rise again or if a carbon tax is adopted,” he said.

Solar panels are a good example. Their production, which uses some of the same manufacturing processes as microchips but on a large scale, is escalating dramatically.

The inherent inefficiency of current solar panel manufacturing methods could drastically reduce the technology’s lifecycle energy balance - that is, the ratio of the energy the panel would produce over its useful lifetime to the energy required to manufacture it.

According to Gutowksi, the new study is just the first step in doing something about it - understanding which processes are most inefficient and need further research to develop less energy-intensive alternatives.

“The bottom line is that new processes are huge users of materials and energy. Because some of these processes are so new, they will be optimized and improved over time,” he said.

But as things stand now, over the last several decades as traditional processes such as machining and casting have increasingly given way to newer ones for the production of semiconductors, MEMS and nano-materials and devices, for a given quantity of output “we have increased our energy and materials consumption by three to six orders of magnitude,” he added. (ANI)

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