Environmental two-step

The twin challenges of green engineering are to measure it and then fix it, says National Instruments


Over the last year, the mainstream media has dramatically increased its emphasis on all things green.

Concerns about global climate change, soaring energy prices and increased government legislation are driving new priorities and expectations — from consumer products to corporate responsibility and sustainability plans.

To meet these new demands, companies around the world are scrambling to create products and technologies that address these concerns and to change the ways in which they are developed and manufactured. The profile of these issues has been raised by politicians but, ultimately, the responsibility for solving these big problems will fall on the shoulders of the world’s scientists and engineers.

This challenge can be broken down into two basic steps — measure it and then fix it. Of the former, Linda Fisher, chief sustainability officer at DuPont said in this January’s issue of The Economist: ‘We find that with energy and greenhouse gases if you start to measure, people reduce the usage. Measuring is not a simple task, but once a company has a proper baseline, it can see what can be changed.’

The second step was highlighted by Al Gore, the head of Alliance for Climate Protection and former US vice-president, in his keynote address at last year’s Embedded Systems Conference. He said: ‘Engineers have a vision and must implement a system to fix problems it is required to fix.’

Essentially then, engineers and scientists have a two-step task: ascertain and monitor the performance of existing systems, processes and the environment so that improvements and required changes can be identified; then develop new methods to improve, create and implement effective changes.

This process, known as green engineering, is the use of measurement and control techniques to design, develop and improve products, technologies and processes that result in environmental and economic benefits.

The scope of green engineering means all companies, across all industries, can make changes to have a positive impact. To achieve their goals, businesses large and small are investing in tools to measure, control and improve the efficiency of their operations.

The good news for engineers is the technologies required to undertake these tasks — such as high-level graphical programming tools, field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) for advanced control, and higher speed and precision measurement hardware — are becoming much more accessible, easier to use, and at a lower cost than ever before.

Having these technologies in the hands of those who are closest to the problems means that solutions can be developed much more quickly and successfully than ever before.

Gore has also discussed how ’embedded systems that have increasing amounts of intelligence can be the most powerful part of the solution to this crisis’.

An example of this is global giant Nucor Steel, one of the largest recyclers in the US. When it acquired the Marion Steel Company in 2005, one of its first actions was to add automation systems throughout the newly-acquired plant to increase efficiency and safety.

Last year Nucor recycled more than 22 million tonnes of steel, including nine million cars. Melting and recasting steel requires a large amount of electricity, so even small increases in efficiency throughout this process result in huge energy and economic savings.

The company used technology from National Instruments, including programmable automation controllers (PACs) and LabVIEW, to develop a variety of automation systems such as a scale and weighing system, an online reactor in series with the furnace and a remote switching station.

These have, according to Nucor, greatly reduced electricity usage, eliminated potential safety issues and contributed to the company’s commitment to environmental stewardship. For example, since implementing the weighing system, Nucor has drastically decreased the number of re-heats it performs, reducing the 2007 total to 10 out of more than 6,000 batches.

As society’s environmental and energy challenges become more acute, the world needs talented, innovative engineers and scientists to change and improve the planet more than ever. The hope is that green engineering encourages and empowers them to identify problems and define solutions — to measure it and fix it.


Read more green engineering case studies at ni.com/greenengineering


Joel Shapiro is group manager, NI Industrial Measurement Control Group; Chris De Filippo is product manager, NI Sound and Vibration; and Ian Bell is technical marketing director, NI UK