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A Systematic Approach To Environmental Improvements

When it comes to environmental sustainability, BASF is putting its resources where its rhetoric is and working toward making it happen.
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While many people in the auto industry are at least familiar with the German concept of the "three-liter car"—a vehicle that can travel 100 km with three liters of fuel or less, Frank McKulka, executive vice president, BASF Corp. references the "three-liter house." That's right. House. And the parameters for this translate into a house that uses the equivalent of three liters of heating oil per square meter of living space per year. It is something that his colleagues at BASF have been working on, figuring out the ways that various materials (such as a clever insulating material that contains microencapsulated wax that melts when it is hot outside, a transformation that consumes heat so that the interior stays cool). BASF is a company that takes ecoefficiency quite seriously.

In fact, there are roots of what is now known as "sustainability" in the founding of what has become a globe-spanning chemical giant.



Back in 1865, when Friedrich Engelhorn established Badische Anilin & Soda Fabrik, he had a concept known as the "Verbund." This same approach holds today, but which is networked beyond the walls of strictly BASF facilities. Suppliers are involved in Verbund. And customers, too. Essentially, this is an idea in which the company's plants were organized such that what was residual or scrap from one operation could be used as raw material for another. Not only was this economical, but it also had ecological implications.

One of the programs that McKulka has been involved with of late is the BASF ECO2 product development initiative. It is a development program that takes into account the auto industries drive for more cost effective manufacturing, improved product quality, and, last but certainly not least, environmental awareness.

An early implementation of ECO2, McKulka says, was working with DaimlerChrysler on painting the Mercedes A Class cars that are produced in Rastatt, Germany. McKulka explains that DCX was looking for a plant that minimized the use of energy, materials and outflow from the plant; in the paint shop, the vehicle manufacturer worked with BASF Coatings and Dürr Systems, an equipment provider. They devised an approach in which the primer is eliminated. There are two water-base coatings on top of an anti-corrosion coat that is applied in a dipping process. The solvent-free powder clear coat is electrostatically applied. Coating consumption in the operation is 20% less than it would be in a more conventional setup. Overall, there is less energy used and an efficient process that results in a high-quality paint job. "Bringing a material supplier, an equipment supplier, and a customer together is not easy to do," McKulka admits. But when it can be done, there are overall benefits realized; it is a matter of addressing things systematically, not as individual elements.

There is, of course, the issue of cost. Do you have to pay more to be environmentally correct? That answer isn't entirely clear-cut. But McKulka says the OEMs "will not pay more for ecologically friendly products." It has to be worked into the entire model. It must make sense.

On one level, there is, more or less, cost parity. As in a high-solids urethane acrylic based paint and a waterborne paint having roughly the same cost. There is a big BUT, as in, "But you need to change the plants. Waterborne paints mean that all of the lines must be stainless steel," McKulka notes. Typically, those lines aren't stainless. So as a result, the plant changeover costs to go from solvents to water can be exceedingly high. In some cases, however, it may be more advantageous to make the change because of the costs associated with abatement of the VOCs.

In a few instances, environmental awareness is evident in the auto industry. Bill Ford, Jr., and the transformation of the Rouge Complex are certainly notable in this regard. It seems, however, that European auto manufacturers are somewhat ahead of the North American builders, if for no other reason than the issues related to legislation that calls for end-of-life recycling of vehicles. While this certainly has more implications on such things as making dashboards that aren't an amalgam of different plastics than it does on painting, this awareness undoubtedly makes European automotive engineers and purchasing agents take a close look at such things as total life cycle costs.

It's all about the system.