Ford is Building a More Sustainable Future

Cynthia M. Flanigan, Ph.D., Director, Vehicle Research and Technology, Ford

Ford is Building a More Sustainable FutureCynthia M. Flanigan, Ph.D., Director, Vehicle Research and Technology, Ford

Conversations about sustainability have shifted over the decades from being “nice to have” to being essential to the success of businesses.  At Ford, we take our commitments to sustainability seriously, and have approached the topic holistically by undertaking sweeping aspirational goals that impact every element of our business.  Ford was the only full-line U.S. automaker that committed to reduce CO2 emissions in line with the Paris Agreement for climate change, and we also led the voluntary agreement with California to adopt meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Recently, we committed to global carbon neutrality by 2050, to eliminate single-use plastics in our operations by 2030, and to use 100 percent locally sourced, renewable electricity in our global manufacturing plants by 2035.  We’re taking it even further by progressing our product material choices to increase the amount of recycled and renewable content, continuously reducing our environmental footprint and using materials that are otherwise slated to be burned or shipped to landfill.

Sustainability is buried deep in Ford’s DNA, as the company’s founder Henry Ford led innovations beginning with producing plastics made from soybeans in his Dearborn laboratory in the 1930s.  He believed in a deep partnership between industry and agriculture, each using the other’s products.   Beyond soy, Ford worked with corn and a host of natural fibers to produce automotive components.  Today, we are proud to be engaged with numerous suppliers, universities, government entities and industrial manufacturers to make significant impacts in the research, development and implementation of plant-based and recycled materials.  In this article, we are excited to share some of our recent successes in coupling innovation, sustainability and partnerships to introduce industry-first, sustainable products. These examples provide a peek into Ford’s pipeline of research and development aimed at using plants, by-products from other industries, and our own waste materials to lead in transitioning to a circular economy. Let me close by saying that customers can be rest assured that these new materials meet (and usually exceed) all requirements for performance, and durability—so there is no compromise.  

Sustainability is buried deep in Ford’s DNA, as the company’s founder Henry Ford led innovations beginning with producing plastics made from soybeans in his Dearborn laboratory in the 1930sCaffeinating Ford Vehicles

In addition, many of them are lighter in weight, improving fuel economy, and many have additional performance benefits in heat, sound, and energy absorption—all while reducing our impact on the planet.  What’s not to like?

Caffeinating Ford Vehicles

Our first example highlights a recent success coming out of a cross-industry collaboration between two unlikely partners—Ford and McDonald’s! McDonald’s sells over 1 billion cups of coffee every year, the beans coming from several roasters. When coffee beans are roasted, a thin skin called “chaff” peels away from the bean.  This material is generally considered waste and is generally either landfilled or burned.  Ford and McDonald’s worked together to utilize chaff as a replacement for talc fillers in plastic. The optimized new material resulted in several improved properties, including significantly lighter weight (>0.5lb per part), higher heat resistance, and faster part manufacturing times.  This example of circular economy principles demonstrates that by-products with little use in one industry can improve the outcome in another.  Coffee chaff-reinforced headlamp housings (the “holder” for the bulbs/wiring and backside of the headlamp) were launched in the 2019 Lincoln Continental with a huge positive response.

Closing The Loop On Additive Manufacturing Waste

Additive manufacturing (AM or 3d printing) has gained popularity in industry and is even becoming common for home use.  3d printing allows one to print individualized and tailored polymeric or metal items, layer-by-layer with potential to produce complex geometries that other processes cannot make. In the automotive industry, additive manufacturing has been traditionally used to make prototype parts, but more recently we have found applications in printing assembly fixtures for use in our manufacturing plants.  These manufacturing tools are lighter in weight, improving ergonomics, and can be tailored to a specific worker’s needs.  Today, Ford prints tens of thousands of additively manufactured parts each year.  Unfortunately, AM processes produce a lot of waste.  Depending upon printer technology, up to 50 percent of the material can end up as waste powder or filament that is no longer suitable for the 3D printing process.   

We’ve demonstrated that it’s important to use an environmental lens up front, while scaling up the use of new manufacturing methods like AM, to ensure that any waste material created is utilized.  Here, the Ford team partnered with Hewlett Packard (HP), Lavergne (Tier 2), and A Raymond (Tier 1) to recycle waste polymer powder and 3D printed parts from HP’s high-capacity MultiJet Fusion (MJF) printers. The material was reformulated, compounded, and up cycled into pellets that were then injection molded into fuel line clips now used on Ford passenger vehicles.

The parts have better chemical and moisture resistance than conventional versions, are 7 percent lighter and cost about 10 percent less. The Ford research team has identified 10 other fuel-line clips on existing vehicles that could benefit from this innovative use of material, and have plans to migrate the new material to future models.

Leveraging High Volume Aluminum Recycling

Ford has also leveraged the high-volume success of our F-150 product to make significant improvements in reducing our environmental impact. We partnered with our aluminum suppliers from the very beginning of the program to install a closed-loop recycling system.  Recognizing the value of segregated scrap, we keep the manufactured scrap at our stamping facility separated and return the material to our suppliers on a per alloy basis for true closed loop recycling.  This high-volume recycling process is an industry-first for aluminum, and key to saving natural resources, energy and money.

Key Facts:

  • Recycling aluminum requires only 5-8 percent of the energy required to extract it from bauxite ore.
  • All of the aluminum specified for the parts in the F-150’s cab and box fall within 7 sheet alloys and 2 extrusion alloys.  These alloys are further divided by Ford into 14 engineering grades based on part function, forming, temperature response, supplier specifics and recycling concerns.
  • Our stamping plants reclaim 87 percent of the scrap produced and segregate the material into 4 alloy streams: high and low copper, and high and low magnesium.
  • Incoming sheet metal is comprised of 67 percent primary and 33 percent tolled (closed loop recycled) material. This material is cast and rolled at the aluminum supplier mill and sent as coil to the stamping plant. 

We’ve shared just a few examples of how Ford is using materials that have lower environmental impact, and hope that these successes inspire others and get everyone thinking about what we can do to preserve the planet for generations to come.  At Ford, we’re committed to doing more each day to reach our aspirational goals!

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