Taking ‘Green’ to a New Level
Steelcase Wood’s Grand Rapids plant reduced annual VOC emissions by 320 tons per year and achieved environmental certification for its construction.
By Greg Landgraf
Steelcase Wood’s new facility is like no other.
When the company opened the factory in March 2001, it converted the finishing department to a largely water-based process. The facility itself was built using principles of environmental architecture, allowing it to be the only manufacturing facility, and the largest building of any kind, certified under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program.
These actions had both the intended environmental benefits (70 percent reduction in VOC release, for example) as well as some unexpected savings that help boost the bottom line.
Three Years of Research
Steelcase began researching a new finishing system in 1998. “At that point we didn’t know what form it would take,” says Randy Bolser, Steelcase Wood’s LEED project specialist, who worked on both the conversion to waterborne finishes and the move to the new facility. He says that a team of five people from Steelcase, Giardina and Akzo Nobel, each with a different area of expertise, examined what the company, and its customers wanted.
Durability was a key criteria for a new finish. “A lot of our sales force and dealer network are used to our steel furniture and being able to abuse it, so they tend to scrutinize our woodwork surfaces a bit more,” adds Diane Baumann, senior marketing specialist.
At the same time, she says, “Customers are looking for other things to differentiate beyond quality, price and lead time, and one is environmental commitment.”
The use of waterborne finishes and the facility’s LEED certification helps Steelcase to demonstrate environmental commitment to its customers. Switching to water-based finishes reduced VOC emissions at the plant by 70 percent to 140 tons annually.
The Countdown to Waterborne
“We purchased a small development line at our old facility to test the process in a small scale,” says Bolser. The development team also traveled to Europe to examine similar finishing systems already in operation.
The new plant includes five new automated finishing lines: two 1,400-foot-long flatline finishing lines from Giardina, a Koch overhead line used for chair parts, and individual lines from Giardina specialized for drawers and work surfaces. At the old plant, employees sprayed finishes by hand.
Before the move, the finishing department held four ISO-certified training classes, covering topics from basic finishing techniques up to operating the numeric-controlled equipment. During these classes, employees learned to use the new equipment and processes at the new facility. Bolser says that as employees finished the classes, they became certified and received new titles, which helped the human resources department to document the progress of the training.
The company began using waterbornes in full scale in March, when the finishing department moved to the new facility. Since the company replaced the old facility’s finishing equipment, no downtime was needed for the move. “Basically we said, ‘On this day, report to the new facility,’” Bolser said. “We had about a week and a half to get all of the bugs out.”
Two Quarter-Mile Finish Lines
The high-volume line is slightly longer than 1,400 feet long, runs at 20 feet per minute, and sticks to about 20 different colors. The custom line measures slightly under 1,400 feet and travels at 15 feet per minute to allow for the greater flexibility that is necessary. It applies about 600 different colors in a year. Baumann says that customized stains make up about 30 percent of the custom line’s production. (Overall, about 40 percent of the factory’s output is “specials,” which includes unique sizes or designs as well as unusual veneers or finishes.)
The lines consist of automated and manual spray stations followed by in-line curing ovens, with hand or automated sanding stations and touch-up material application as needed.
All of the stains applied by the lines are water-based. Baumann says Steelcase believes it is the first company applying water-based stains on such a massive scale. She also notes that the converson to water-based stains caused the greatest VOC reduction.
Throughout the finishing process, only the wash coat and the sealer coat are solvent-based. The spray booths applying those coats each have water running down their sides, which filters the overspray so the solvents can be recovered and incinerated.
Twenty overhead pipes deliver different stain colors from a central location to the spray equipment. The pipes enable fast changeover of colors: a switch can be made in less than a minute. They also connect to a proprietary database program that calculates and records how much of each coating is sprayed for inventory and VOC reporting purposes.
The in-line curing ovens make up most of the length of the line. Each one uses two techniques to dry the material. First, a forced-air system draws moisture out of the finish by removing humidity from the air around it. Then, infrared radiation completes the drying job.
The topcoat is a proprietary, water-based formulation made by Akzo Nobel, with a resin developed by Bayer Corp. At 700 feet, the topcoat curing ovens are the longest single parts of each finishing line, and are a bit more involved than the lines’ other curing ovens. The beginning of the oven is “basically a giant air conditioner,” Bolser says. That section of the oven is kept at a constant temperature and humidity, and it has little air circulation apart from periodic “flashes” of cool air. After flashing comes forced air drying and infrared radiation, but the heat is much more intense than in other ovens on the line.
All told, a part spends just over an hour in one of the finishing lines, making the new equipment a big boost to production. “The finish operations have always been a bottleneck, so we built our new finish lines to handle about three times what we had,” Bolser says.
Building a Green Woodworking Plant
Because no available local buildings fit Steelcase’s needs, the company decided to build a new facility. Baumann says that environmental stewardship is one of the Steelcase’s core values, so company personnel began looking for existing green certification criteria for designing the new building.
During the search, the company discovered the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Program. The only stumbling block was that the pilot program did not have any provisions for manufacturing facilities. Working with the council, Baumann says, “We took the program and adapted it to our needs.” Bolser began working on the LEED certification project in September of 1999.
The LEED program requires participants to meet criteria in five areas:
• Energy efficiency
Within each area, there are mandatory prerequisites and optional criteria that can be achieved for credit towards certification. Buildings must achieve at least 26 of the 69 possible credits to receive certification. Steelcase Wood’s facility achieved the Silver level of certification, requiring at least 33 points.
To help meet the lighting and energy credits, the facility has a central computer control. “We call it the beast,” says Bolser. The “beast” controls air compressors, chillers and other processes and cycles them so they only come on in areas that people are using. A separate system manages the facility’s lights in the same way. For example, Bolser says, “If we know we’re going to have people in the shipping area between 6 and 8 a.m. on Sunday, we can program it so only the shipping area is lit at that time.” The system also cycles parking lot and outdoor lighting to serve only the areas that have people in them.
Other LEED credits include use of recycled building materials, low-maintenance landscaping, fresh air intake fans and low-flow plumbing fixtures. For further information on the LEED program, see the sidebar below.
Other Environmental Features
Automated, energy-efficient lights help the building meet that level, but the facility also uses large skylights and windows. “We really admire the work of William McDonough, a well-known environmental architect,” Baumann says. “One of the things he talks about is the need to get natural lighting into the plant.” The building carries this idea all the way down to the doors in the shipping docks, which have two layers of windows so people of all heights can see outside.
Baumann says that Steelcase gives preference to certified wood in its manufacturing, although it also accepts supplies from small vendors that harvest sustainably even though they do not participate in a certification system. The company recognizes both the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council systems as valid.
Upgrades Around the Plant
“We actually increased our production during the move and never missed a schedule,” Bolser says. The facility was aided in this by offloading work to other Steelcase Wood facilities in New Paris, IN, and Fletcher, NC. After the move, the factory was also able to reduce its operating schedule from 24/7 operation down to essentially two shifts, five days a week. The plant operates a third shift, but only 90 of its 700 employees work then.
The new facility is one of 12 Grand Rapids locations for Steelcase, but the only one in the area that produces wood furniture. The Michigan location produces seating, case goods and systems products, as well as veneer faces for the North Carolina operation. The Grand Rapids plant itself does little outsourcing, apart from chair frames and precut particleboard cores.
The veneer department buys flitches in bulk on a just-in-time basis. Baumann says the plant’s veneer buyer knows the type of cuts needed in the plant’s upcoming schedule, and can buy bargains for a short storage time if they are available. Walnut, cherry, maple and oak are the most commonly used veneers in the facility.
The veneer department uses Fisher RÃÆ?ÃâÃÂ¼ckle splicers, BÃÆ?ÃâÃÂ¼rkle glue spreaders and WemhÃÆ?ÃâÃÂ¶ner presses for its production. While the equipment was not replaced during the move, the department itself was upgraded, with greatly improved lighting to make veneer selection easier. In addition, all of the equipment moved from the old plant was put through a process qualification to ensure it was working at the expected level.
A Stefani Major/CS from SCM Group USA sizes and edgebands all four sides of each part. The work cell consists of two double-sided units that each cut and band opposite sides, with a Mahros turn unit between them.
Several CNC routers are used for machining. Most are hand-loaded with the aid of vacuum lifts, but the newest is a conveyor-fed Morbidelli U550, purchased about two years ago from SCM Group. The router has two stations that can machine parts simultaneously, while conveyors position up to eight pieces at once. A return conveyor brings machined parts back to the operator, who loads and unloads in the same area.
Steelcase bought a massive dust collection system engineered in-house and built by Waltz Holtz of Ada, MI, for the facility. It consists of seven collectors with a total power of 240,000 cfm.
“The process of filtration increases the temperature of the air being filtered, removing heat from the plant,” Bolser says. That heat can be returned to the plant in the winter or removed during the summer to maintain a comfortable temperature while reducing energy use. Steelcase received credit toward LEED certification for the system.
“We don’t have final calculations on cost comparisons yet, however, significant savings offset some increased costs,” says Baumann. For example, low-maintenance landscaping and low-flow plumbing fixtures are expected to save more than 1.5 million gallons of water annually, and energy savings from the efficient lighting will be significant as well, particularly in the face of rising natural gas costs.
“One of the things that isn’t really measurable is the improved morale and productivity,” Baumann adds. “It’s hard to put a number on, but when you think about people coming from a dark work environment to a light, clean environment, you have to believe it will improve.” The company estimates a 15 percent productivity improvement simply from the improved work environment, Baumann says.
While Steelcase does not have any new facilities planned, Baumann says that new plants in the future will follow the LEED program’s principles or at least use some of the knowledge gained from this experiment.
Another goal of the project was to raise awareness of green building to Steelcase’s dealer network and to expose subcontractors to the notion of green building, many of which had never been exposed to the idea. “At the beginning they were all afraid of it, but at the end, they were embracing it,” Bolser says.
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