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Companies Get Creative to Save a Dwindling Resource: Water

At Ford, climate change is one of the factors behind a push to reduce water use.

At Ford Motor’s Van Dyke factory in Sterling Heights, Michigan, all 46 acres of floor space are devoted to making just one car component: transmissions. Almost one-third of the vehicles Ford builds worldwide get their transmissions from Van Dyke—plants in Michigan, Kentucky, and Illinois, and also in Thailand, Russia, Germany, and Mexico. The transmission in a modern automobile has to power a vehicle that may weigh 4,400 pounds, sometimes all two tons rattling along a rutted road at 40 miles per hour. But inside the transmission, the parts whirl alongside each other with tolerances of just 15 micrometers, one-third the width of a human hair.

Until recently, the process of machining all that cast aluminum so it runs with the precision of a fine watch and the power of a full-size SUV required cascades of water.

At hundreds of cutting stations inside Van Dyke, robotic machines would cut the intricate parts, lubricated and cooled by nozzles squirting a mix of water and lubricant directly onto the cutting tools and the metal being cut. The machining stations were on Van Dyke’s main floor. Beneath them were trenches for collecting the used lubricating water. The system depended on 20 built-in water tanks—pits, they were called—each holding 25,000 gallons, more than a backyard swimming pool.

One-third of all the cars Ford makes worldwide use transmissions made at its Van Dyke factory.

Some 40,000 gallons a day were lost just to evaporation. The air was filled with a mist of greasy water droplets. “You had to clean off your safety goggles all the time,” says Rob Clifton, a manufacturing engineer at Van Dyke.

Today, all 20 tanks are gone, the last three retired last year. The facility now has 162 computerized cutting machines that do their work behind glass windows in enclosed chambers. The cutting tools and the metal parts still need to be cooled and lubricated, but instead of a flood of water, each machine does that with a fine mist sprayed directly where the cutting is being done. Each machine has its own lubricant tank—3.5 gallons. A typical machine needs its tank refilled once a month.

Between 2010 and 2015, Van Dyke doubled the number of transmissions it makes but cut its overall water use by 10 percent, a transformation that is part of a global effort by Ford to change the way it uses water every day. For Ford and a number of other manufacturers, adopting such water-saving technologies is a way to gain a real strategic advantage as they adapt to climate change.

In the last decade, water scarcity has become a concern for companies around the world for a range of reasons—including population growth and improving economic conditions, which always result in more water use. But the chief source of corporate water anxiety is climate change. Long-established global precipitation patterns are changing, shifting water supplies away from the places where people have been accustomed to finding them—and where facilities have been built.

Intel, whose chip-manufacturing process is heavily water intensive, notes in its most recent annual report that because many of its operations are located in “semi-arid regions that may become increasingly vulnerable to prolonged droughts due to climate change,” the company “may have difficulties obtaining sufficient water to fulfill our operational needs.” Coca-Cola—which as recently as 2003 didn’t even acknowledge water as a key ingredient of its products in its financial filings—devotes five pages to water use and water “replenishment” efforts in its most recent sustainability report.

“In terms of water, back 15 years ago when we started, no one cared that much,” says Andy Hobbs, director of Ford’s global environmental-quality office. Indeed, the company didn’t track its water use either by facility or by department. Hobbs’s group started its efforts by installing a lot of water meters.

Ford’s water efforts are part of a larger environmental and climate-change program for the company’s manufacturing operations—and because Ford is a car company, that progress has to be matched by reducing auto emissions, which are big contributors to climate change. Ford has publicly pledged, for instance, that its vehicles will use 25 percent less energy by the end of this year than they did in 2011.

With $150 billion in annual sales and 199,000 employees, Ford operates 62 major facilities around the world. Some are in Michigan, surrounded by the largest supply of fresh water found anywhere. Others are in places like Hermosillo, Mexico, on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, where water is so scare that at one time, Ford simply kept drilling its own supply wells deeper and deeper as the aquifer dropped.

Between 2000 and 2010, the company cut the amount of water necessary to manufacture a car by one-third. Between 2010 and 2013, it did the same thing again. The water that went into making 100 cars in 2000 now goes into 222.

At Hermosillo, where Ford Fusions and Lincoln MKXs are assembled in an area that’s increasingly low on water, a closed-loop recycling system has been installed, using reverse osmosis to clean the water so it can be reused over and over. Thanks to this system, the plant has been able to avoid increasing water usage as it’s expanded production by 50 percent. Every Ford factory now knows how much water it uses to make every item it produces, and also how much energy and how much hydrocarbon it emits—a level of basic awareness that many companies lack. Hermosillo now uses 555 gallons of water to make a car, about half Ford’s global average of 1,030 gallons. Another plant in Mexico, and a plant in India, are below 300 gallons a car.

When Ford first started accounting for water in detail, it discovered that 10 percent of its water “use” worldwide came from leaking water pipes, mostly in fire protection systems. But the most dramatic changes in water use have required Ford to reach back into its supply chain and change the composition of the materials it uses to make cars. Car painting is a hugely water-intensive process: it starts by taking vehicle bodies that are nothing but raw steel and running them through a dip tank as long as two football fields, fully submerged, to clean the material and prep it to accept high-tech paint.

In Ford’s new system, the three coats of paint a car requires (primer, base, and clear coat) can be applied without drying in between—something Ford calls “wet wet wet” painting. Eliminating some of the ovens used to cure the cars between coats saves energy, and the water associated with the painting process has been cut 30 percent. To pull off that transformation, Ford had to work with its paint suppliers worldwide to, quite literally, reformulate the paint applied to millions of cars a year. The new paint transfers much more efficiently to the cars, so less excess needs to be captured by the water system.

Ford’s water efficiency efforts overall have been so effective that Hobbs and his environmental group have started to imagine a new set of goals for the company. Someday, for instance, Ford might use only nonpotable water to supply its manufacturing.

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