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Anthony Ku and Steven Duclos: A Manufacturer’s Perspective on Material Sustainability

By Anthony Ku and Steven Duclos May 21, 2013

From GE Global Research, the first in a series of articles on material sustainability and advanced manufacturing at GE.

Discussions about sustainability often focus on the availability of and access to hydrocarbons and water. Deservedly so, as energy and water are foundational to human survival. But modern society also depends on a wide array of raw materials – from simple steels to esoteric compounds derived from the far corners of the periodic table – for the products that enrich our lives and sustain our standard of living.

The same trends that are raising questions about the sustainability of energy and water also apply to materials. With increasing demand and limited supply, miners find themselves digging deeper and more remotely. Refiners find themselves processing less pure ores. Prices are rising, environmental impact is growing, and geopolitical challenges abound.

In 2010, GE used approximately 2.8 billion pounds of raw materials, including at least 75 of the first 82 elements on the periodic table. At least some of these elements are currently or are expected to experience supply constraints in the future. We have employed a “criticality analysis” to help anticipate and proactively address material sustainability risks. This analysis has generated a criticality diagram, a figure that provides a simple way to visualize which elements are both “at risk” from a supply standpoint, and where a supply disruption would have significant “impact” on GE’s businesses. Each element is assigned a numerical score by taking into account GE use, global abundance, availability of substitutes, and other factors. Elements that score high in both areas are flagged for action. The 2012 GE criticality diagram shows several high risk elements, including a number of rare earth elements.

We address the challenge of material sustainability using a comprehensive, five-point strategy. The various elements of this strategy seek to stabilize supply, while also reducing demand within our manufacturing operations. Sourcing, manufacturing and engineering functions of our businesses are all involved. The exact mix of activities varies with the specific element and the timing of the disruption or potential disruption.

The first element of this strategy is to look for ways to diversify our global supply chain. This includes developing alternate sources, entering into long-term supply agreements, and maintaining a strategic inventory of selected materials. In some cases, this also means working with our suppliers and vendors to make sure they have the materials they need to ensure uninterrupted supplies to our businesses.

Second, we identify opportunities to improve material utilization in our manufacturing processes. Advanced manufacturing techniques such as net shape and additive processes can cut down on scrap material by using only as much material as is needed for the product. This is not an easy thing to do in a world where products require complicated shapes with exacting dimensions to optimize efficiency and function, but represents an important option for materials such as high-performance alloys.

Third, we can introduce recycling technologies that re-use elements from both manufacturing scrap and products at end-of-life. For high value materials, the recovery and reuse of manufacturing scrap offers a way to reduce the overall material requirements. Products can also be designed in a way that makes it easier to disassemble and retrieve the high value components at the end of their service life.

Fourth, we can develop substitute materials to reduce or eliminate the use of raw materials that are at risk. Development and design of alternate materials using different elements can aid in these substitutions.

Finally, we can reassess the entire system. Often, more than one technology can address a customer’s need, and each will use a different subset of the periodic table. A new or alternate technology can sometimes provide a solution to material constraints. A concrete example of our material sustainability strategy in action is our on-going work with rare earth elements. Rare earth elements are used in a wide array of GE products, from phosphors to medical imaging to motors. These elements have special properties that make them useful in magnetic, optical, and electronics applications. They have been in the news over the past several years due to supply concerns, and have been flagged by our criticality analysis.

Over the past several years, our commercial teams have been actively engaged in managing price and supply and evaluating all alternative technology options to minimize the risks of disruption and the impacts when disruptions occur. More specifically: Our sourcing teams have been working with global miners and separators to secure adequate supply for both our existing products and our next-generation offerings.

Our government relations teams are also engaged, due to the impact of policy on supply. Our manufacturing teams have implemented recycling programs for fluorescent lamp phosphors and are looking at phosphor rejuvenation for end-of-life lamps. Our scientists and engineers have been working on substitute materials that use lower amounts of rare earths in magnets and medical imaging materials. Our Lighting business has invested in the development of white LED technology to replace the fluorescent lamp – a replacement that could lead to a nearly 100 times reduction in the use of rare earth elements by that business.

We believe that material sustainability – the usage of increasingly scarce raw materials in a sustainable manner – will increasingly drive the design, manufacture, use, and end-of-life fate of future products. Our material sustainability strategy is geared towards providing our business units with the tools they need to suit their product and business needs.