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Greening Detroit: Ford's Legacy of Sustainability Photo by: Sam VarnHagen/Ford

Greening Detroit: Ford's Legacy of Sustainability

From the Model A to the F-150, the Ford Rouge Center pairs legacy with sustainability.

In times of climate change, emissions standards (and explosive Volkswagen scandals) and ever-aggressive automotive regulations, the Ford Rouge Complex is a stalwart example of how to balance environmental concerns and the bottom line.

Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford developed what would become the Rouge.

On the banks of the Rouge River in Dearborn, Mich., just outside of Detroit, Ford in 1917 constructed a three-story building to build warships. Within the decade, the company was manufacturing the Model A at the site in what was an automotive ore-to-assembly process.

In the years that followed, the Rouge has become an iconic part of not only Ford Motor's legacy but also of the automotive industry's history. The sprawling 600-acre Rouge today has five manufacturing plants, employs 6,000 workers and is the company's largest, single industrial complex.

But even more, the site is a showpiece of Ford Motor's commitment to sustainability. It's the place where the company pilots green initiatives and tests new ideas. It embodies the future of the eco-friendly automotive industry, an industry free of billowing clouds of black smoke and unregulated emissions. The Rouge, simply put, is the convergence of the past, the present and the future.

"Engineers use it like their backyard shed that they can go down and tinker in," said Andy Hobbs, director of Ford's environmental quality office.

The Rouge is only a few miles from Ford Motor's headquarters and, as such, serves as an ideal testing ground, he said.

At the center of the Rouge's sustainability efforts is the Dearborn Truck Plant – the facility recently renovated to create the aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup truck.

The plant, which churns out about 1,000 trucks a day, has a 10.4-acre living roof – the size of eight football fields – that filters storm water. It is part of a larger natural storm water management system that includes a porous parking lot that sends excess water into swales – vegetated ditches – and natural treatment wetlands.

And, with the development of the new F-150, Ford Motor designed a process in which it recycles all of the scrap aluminum from the stamping process to reuse again on future F-150s.

Beyond that, the final assembly building is outfitted with 3,000-square-foot skylights and a slew of smaller skylights. And outside, there are beehives used to produce honey on site.

"It was a real testbed for these technologies," Hobbs said.

In fact, the entire sustainability move  at the Rouge has only had one hiccup, according to Hobbs. The Ford Fumes-to-Fuel System, when launched, was expected to revolutionize clean energy generation. However, the system, which converts paint emissions into energy through fuel cells, was never expanded beyond its pilot stage.

"We haven't been able to get the fuel cells to a position where they could be an off-the-shelf technology," Hobbs said.

Driving the Future

Moving forward, the Rouge will continue to be at the forefront of Ford Motor's environmentally-driven efforts.

"It's a huge complex, our biggest in the world. There are multiple manufacturing facilities on it, right on the Rouge River," Hobbs said. "For me, it ultimately has to be an icon for water consumption, or lack of water consumption."

A reduction in water consumption as well as in waste generation are among some of the company's priorities for the future, especially because Ford Motor operates in some water-stressed regions of the world. Hobbs said the company wants to eliminate – as much as is possible – the use of potable water in manufacturing.

Through all of these efforts, Ford Motor tries to achieve two primary goals: to be compliant with regulations and to be aggressive in meeting its own environmental goals.
Ford Motor's independent pursuit of sustainability can be traced back to Henry Ford, Hobbs said.

"He was really interested in environmental sustainability even before that was a thing," he said.

Ford, who grew up on the family farm, developed a soybean factory on the Rouge site to try to turn agricultural products into industrial parts for tractors and cars.

That legacy has continued through the generations of the Ford family and remains a driver of the company's sustainability efforts, Hobbs said.

To that end, Ford Motor's approach to sustainability is innovation driven. Hobbs said the company gives engineers free reign to find the best solution to environmental problems and urges regulators to set standards but not prescribe technology.

"We want them to look holistically and find the best solution," Hobbs said.

For example, Ford Motor opted to use solvent-based paints rather than water-based ones because it determined it was more sustainable from a holistic point of view.

While water-based paint reduces air emissions, it requires longer oven times, which uses more energy, and more sensitive material, which creates a tighter operating window and leads to more reruns, Hobbs said.

On the other hand, a solvent-based paint allows the company to reduce the size of its ovens, reprocess the paints and solvents and recycle all of the byproducts.

"Let's not just say, ‘water is good' and live with it. Let's look at it holistically," Hobbs said.

Once an initiative – whether it is compliance-driven or company-driven – is established, it is worked into Ford Motor's environmental operating system and actionable steps are developed.

That could be something as routine as checking the temperature of an incinerator in a paint booth to ensure that it's operating correctly and recording the data.

"Every single aspect of our business is controlled that way," Hobbs said.

That's because the business case is made for all sustainability efforts.

"We don't want to be the kind of environmental group or part of the company that forces the kind of environmental policy that doesn't make business sense. Sustainability has to have economic sustainability as well," Hobbs said. "When we go to manufacturing leadership with proposals, they can see the impact on the bottom line."

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