The need for environmentally friendly vehicles for our roads has become increasingly pressing as reports of the damage that fossil-fuelled cars are doing to the environment and our health become ever more apparent. Sales of hybrid and battery-powered vehicles are on the rise, but use is only one facet of the issue, and of increasing concern is the question whether the manufacturers of these eco-cars are doing so in the greenest way. But what does it take for an environmentally friendly car factory to be environmentally friendly itself?

World-wide car components

Cars, regardless of the make, are a collection of components that are invariably sourced from different manufacturers around the world. There isn’t a single manufacturer who can select all of the components that they need – even if they manufacture many of these themselves – from an area a small as a single country, because the expertise and specialism may only exist in countries which may be on the other side of the world. This means that there will always be transport costs and those can be quite sizable, particularly if you are sourcing components for the other side of the world and having them flown in!

Eco-friendly doesn’t necessarily mean green

It’s a sad fact that some of the world’s major car manufacturers – Tesla are a prime example – cite their vehicles as being planet saving, but forget to mention that in terms of production they are less than vigilant. The environmental issues associated with building a car are hugely complex. Even ignoring such fundamental facts such as the mining and processing of metal ores to make the basic components, the manufacture of cars generally stamps the World with a large carbon footprint. Parts used in cars are almost never available from just one area and, ever conscious of cost, the car manufacturers look further afield.

International Sourcing

In the 1970’s National car industries traditionally sourced parts from within their own country, but a reduction in air and sea-freight costs during the 1980s meant that manufacture in middle-European countries – typically Poland and Czechoslovakia – made manufacture and import a much cheaper option. A decade later, China and the Far East were becoming the areas of low cost, high-volume production, and the cost of that together with import was preferable to local-ish manufacture and in-country shipping.

However, while the financial cost of global import may be relatively cheap, the hidden environmental aspects are far larger. Ships and aircraft need fuel, and their impact is significant!

Far East Is Too Far

Recently though, many manufacturers have woken up to the fact that while Far East manufacture may seem cheap, it actually isn’t one other costs have been factored in, and it definitely isn’t good for the planet. The overall costs associated with import include:

  • Cost of goods – variable depending on unit price and quantity.
  • Freight – variable, depending on volume, port it’s coming from/going to, time of year, freight company used etc.
  • Duty – variable percentage of the value Customs put on your goods
  • Tax - Goods and Services Tax or Value Added Tax can be variable percentage of the Customs value of cost of goods plus freight and insurance and Customs duty.

 Other costs such as Customs clearance, document fees, wharf charges etc, which can be as much as 3% on top of everything else.

Plainly, long range manufacture and shipping is no longer the great deal that is was, and that together with an increasing social conscience, has changed the way that massed-component assemblers like car manufacturers are changing the way they operate.


Volkswagen thinks green and blue

Car manufacturers use a system of “Tiering”, with Tier One suppliers delivering items being used directly on a car, and lower tiers supplying those in turn; tyres are a Tier One component whereas bulbs that go into a light cluster assembly may be Tier Two or even Three.  Increasingly, manufacturers are demanding that their suppliers be not only local to them, but in many cases, actually part of the overall production line.

This is a system that has been pioneered by Volkswagen in Germany, and their “Think Blue” concept, in which they consider not only how a car is build but also how energy, and other resources such as water usage, CO2 emissions, and solvent disposal handled. A total of 27 out of VW’s 43 operated plants now run according to the ThinkBlue policy, making a meaningful impact on how the company interacts with the environment, and making their products credible from an ecological point of view. As a group and using this method, VW have identified over 114 million Euro’s worth of savings, while occupying a much better environmental position than other manufacturers.

Modular Production Means Greener Cars

Meanwhile, Daimler-Benz have adopted a modular form of production lines in which core suppliers form a part of the assembly system and new production plants are designed they seek to incorporate this modular design that keeps everything close and reduces the plants carbon footprint significantly. They further demand that lower tier suppliers are also within a reasonable distance from the plant, ensuring that they have constant and reliable source of components when they need them, and reducing emissions from transport sources.

These are becoming so called Assembly Villages, and are self-contained areas where virtually all of the work required to manufacture the car is carried out in a small environment, vastly reducing transport costs and allowing the proper disposal of any controlled materials.

Considering components

But it’s not just the actual manufacturing process that is being examined by manufacturers and the actual component parts are a hot topic. Tyres in particular are under investigation. It remains a fact that harder, properly inflated tyres increase a car’s efficiency and reduce fuel usage. However, this becomes a trade-off between the need for efficiency and the obvious requirement for adhesion to the road.  Safety becomes the dominant factor, but it is very closely followed by cost and carbon footprint.

However, better gains can be made with structural materials and many manufacturers are turning to lightweight metals and an increasing use of polymers and carbon fibre materials in an attempt to reduce weight and a cars impact on the environment.  Engineers are looking at ways to increase efficiencies in drag by making outer panels more streamlined and better at passing through the air, while also developing paints that further reduce drag.

Making a Holistic Approach

Car manufacturers are becoming ever more pushed to deliver goods which not only deliver ecological savings in terms of use, but also in manufacture. This means that anything that is sourced and used in the factory must be as low energy usage as possible, and disposed of in the most appropriate way.

The smart manufacture of something as complex as cars demonstrates how easy it can be for industries to analyse their industry and make changes to not only benefit themselves but also help the planet too. This holistic approach is becoming more prevalent amongst a growing number of businesses and with car manufacture in particular, can deliver real savings.