Sustainability is often interchangeably used with terms such as reducing waste, recycling, and caring for the environment. But for a manufacturer or business, the word must have a broader, deeper meaning, according to Freudenberg-NOK’s Theodore Duclos.

What does “sustainability” really mean in a corporate setting?

The definition that resonates with me is the capacity to endure. For a business to survive and prosper, it must have the capacity to persevere over the long term and pursue long-range objectives. That, of course, requires sound finances, relevant products, and an effective means of production. Corporate sustainability must include economic, environmental, and social initiatives in a balance that does not favor one over the others. That’s a complex assignment but one that is absolutely essential to long-term endurance.

Can you offer any specific guidelines?

Freudenberg’s approach to sustainability was codified more than 160 years ago when its founder, Carl Johann Freudenberg, drafted six Guiding Principles — critical attributes for achieving long-term business viability and success. They’re based around providing value to the customer, innovation, responsibility, and long-term orientation.

How do the principles foster sustainability?

We make seals, and the company has an impressive history of reengineering its products to meet changing customer requirements. For example, in the process of sealing, our products generate friction, which our customers want to eliminate because it impacts performance. Regulations governing fuel economy and emissions are also increasingly stringent, so improving powertrain performance is imperative.

In response, we developed a new line of energy-saving seals. These dynamic seals reduce friction and system temperature so much that if every rotating seal on every automobile in the U. S. today were replaced by the appropriate energy-saving version, it would save the equivalent of three days of oil imports each year. It shows the significance of a product that will likely sustain our company over the long term.

How have the principles influenced environmental sustainability?

Let’s face it, corporations are still motivated by profits and if environmental initiatives don’t add to the bottom line, they aren’t generally a management priority at many companies. Freudenberg, on the other hand, recently announced that it is targeting a zero-waste position in the next decade. That’s really an extraordinary goal and, of course, it falls in line with the whole principle of responsibility.

While we were contemplating how to reduce friction in our seals, we also looked to improve our manufacturing to reduce waste. At the time, like the rest of the industry, we still relied on multicavity tools and batch processes. So, we developed the machines and tooling to support single-cavity production and “flashless” molding to eliminate scrap. Both processes are now in use and have the potential to revolutionize our manufacturing capabilities. The approach is economical, has higher precision, and generates far less waste.

In another case, one of our stamping facilities discovered a method for making higher-quality parts using less stamping oil, which also reduces the amount of wastewater we produce when cleaning parts. The opportunity is there, to act responsibly and adopt programs to support the environment.

Is there a common thread in all of this?

The common thread is waste elimination and a deeper more fundamental concept — knowledge creation. The relentless pursuit of new knowledge is the fundamental task of any research and development organization. Because any kernel of knowledge becomes less valuable and more of a commodity over time, striving for sustainability drives us to create new knowledge.

Finally, what emerging technologies may someday become the engines of sustainability?

One fascinating area is 3D printing or additive manufacturing. The technology is now accessible to everyone, allowing components to be manufactured without expensive tools and at relatively low cost. How much this technology will change traditional manufacturing is hard to say, but any manufacturer who ignores it does so at high risk.

Another, less-developed area that is already having a profound effect on our medical care — and could impact manufacturing — is bioengineered products. With the isolation and decoding of the DNA molecule, an entirely new approach to describing and creating objects was unveiled. Imagine molecules that replicate themselves according to self-contained instructions to build a complete product. While there are obviously many technical hurdles to be resolved, it is interesting to open our minds to the possibility of planting seeds that grow into seals or, perhaps, even a house!