Blue Competence, the sustainability initiative launched three years ago by the VDMA German Engineering Federation is now also supported by the plastics and rubber machinery manufacturers association. With nearly 40 machinery companies in the sector having already joined the initiative, it seems clear that sustainability, albeit blue instead of green, has struck a chord in the machinery sector.
But why only now? The official answer: the time was ripe, with this year's Fakuma trade fair offered a perfect opportunity. The unofficial answer, as it later appeared, was a horse of a different color.
The industry launch was accompanied by a panel discussion, mediated by Thorsten Kühmann, the association's managing director, between heavyweight VDMA members Karlheinz Bourdon (KraussMaffei), Ulrich Reifenhäuser (Chairman of the Plastics and Rubber Machinery Association and managing director Reifenhäuser Group Company), Peter Neumann (Engel) and Helmut Heinson (managing director Arburg), all of whom were asked about their reason joining the initiative and, more fundamentally, what sustainability meant to them and their companies.
And, while predictably each of the company representatives took the opportunity to highlight their own company's particular sustainability advantages and achievements, it was nonetheless clear that they were committed to the initiative.
"As plant and machinery manufacturers, we have a responsibility to enable converters to use energy and raw materials efficiently, creating the technological basis for sustainable finished products," was how Ulrich Reifenhäuser neatly summarized it.
Although plastics and rubber machinery accounts for a huge part of the energy consumption in the industry, measuring the energy consumption of specific machines is a far from transparent process. This is one of the areas in which improvement is being worked on. A revised version of the Association's technical recommendation on energy is in the making that will make it easier to compare measurement results. At the same time, machinery manufacturers have been working to reduce the amount of energy their machines use, introducing increasingly sophisticated technology to build ever more efficient machines.
"We are engineers," said KraussMaffei's VP of Technologies Karlheinz Bourdon, "and so we build machines as cost-efficiently and as energy-efficiently as possible. We are convinced that the integration of processes is the way to achieve this. And we can do this."
Some go even further. "Sustainability is a priority," said Arburg's Helmut Heinson. "With us it starts with the design of the product and in putting in place a sustainable production process." The Arburg plant is certified under ISO 500001, which provides a framework for improving energy performance, including energy efficiency, use and consumption.
For Engel Chairman of the Board, Peter Neumann, social and ecological responsibility played a dominant role. "As a family company, we have a responsibility towards future generations, as well. Which means investing in knowledge and education, and in our manufacturing sites, to ensure continuity and the wellbeing of our employees, economically as well."
The panel discussion ended with all participants emphasizing that they had not become 'eco freaks', nor were they planning to engage in greenwashing. The Blue Competence initiative was intended as an active commitment to "economic, ecologic and social sustainability", even though, as Arburg's Heinson pointed out: "Yes, it requires investment, in people, time and knowhow. But it yields so very much more in return."
In vino veritas
The crux is that the German plastics and rubber machinery sector can now afford it. All the major manufacturers report that business has never been so good. As one manufacturer put it: "Germany is an oasis in the European desert. And we owe our revenue to exports - it's saved our butts."
These companies are all active worldwide and operate in booming markets in the BRIC countries, Mexico, and even the USA. Profit-wise, they've come a long way since 2009, when both customers and cash were scarce and the 's' word was survival, rather than sustainability.
"When you're in the red, you can't do green", the manufacturer went on. "That was our big problem. But now we have the resources. And our customers want it. So in this area, too, we aim to become the benchmark."
And raising his wine glass, he added: "You will see. A toast to the green and energy-efficient German machines!"