Building a green manufacturing plant in China is not easy. While there's a lot of talk about making Chinese industry more sustainable, going the extra step and actually putting up an environmentally friendly factory requires breaking new ground.
At least that's what U.S. telephone headset maker Plantronics Inc. found when it decided to build a ``green'' factory in China.
The firm which uses solar power at its Santa Cruz, Calif., headquarters and plant a Tijuana, Mexico wanted to build a factory in Suzhou to standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington.
But it found that knowledge about the USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, though prominent worldwide, was scarce in China.
``The first challenge, I can tell you, is that people didn't know anything about LEED in China,'' said Ricardo Pineda, director of worldwide manufacturing engineering for Plantronics. ``There were no consulting firms to help us through the material selection process. There were no suppliers we knew who had LEED as a marketing tool in China. So we just started asking questions.''
In the end, the company succeeded, and in 2006 the Suzhou facility became the first manufacturing plant in China to be certified by USGBC, earning a LEED gold rating.
Plantronics makes mass-market wireless communications devices, and is the sole supplier of headsets for U.S. air traffic controllers. Astronaut Neil Armstrong used one of the firm's headsets to utter his famous phrase from the moon: ``That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.''
Pineda, who oversaw the China project, said the US$21 million spent to give a ``green'' focus to the factory definitely paid off. The relatively small extra costs paid for themselves quickly, in cost savings from an energy-efficient heating system, an insulated and heat-reflective roof, a focus on water conservation and other features, he said in an interview at Plantronics' Suzhou manufacturing campus.
``If it is new construction, it will cost 3-4 percent more, I'll say that's tops, and the payback is less than two years,'' Pineda said. ``When you think about it, it's not that much additional cost.''
He estimated that the facility's energy-efficient features will cut operating costs by 5 or 6 percent when the building is fully operational. That can make a difference in its margin-sensitive products, he said.
Other savings include:
c Water use was reduced by 2.6 million gallons in the first year from a system of capturing rainwater and using low-flow toilets and waterless urinals. It also has a reverse-osmosis system to make city water drinkable.
c The plant received tax breaks and some free electricity from local governments, which saw benefits for their city in seeing the ``green'' project succeed.
c The factory saved on electricity and energy consumption, with a slight angle to the building design to take advantage of sunlight. Energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, an energy-rated roof and insulated block walls boosted energy efficiency.
LEED strongly encourages that materials and equipment be sourced within 500 miles, to reduce energy consumption from sending products long distances. Plantronics found most materials locally, except an energy-efficient heating and air-cooling system and an air filter for fume extraction, which it sourced from California, Pineda said.
Adopting parts of Chinese and Suzhou-nese culture in the design were helpful as well in making the facility environmentally friendly, Pineda said.
Suzhou is famous for its ancient gardens and canals, so Plantronics incorporated ponds and gardens into its fire suppression system, eliminating the need for a water tower and creating a pleasing campus landscape, he said.
As well, Pineda said he decided to hire a feng shui master to advise on the building design (even if corporate headquarters were thrown by the item in the budget.)
``I'm not a construction guy. I'm a manufacturing guy, and I'm not Chinese either, so I hired a feng shui master,'' he said. ``LEED didn't care about that, but I care about that.''
First, the feng shui expert suggested moving the employee entrance on the bottle-shaped property, to improve the flow of energy. Another suggestion yielded an unexpected LEED benefit, Pineda said: ``He asked us to put the offices closer to the windows, to expose more employees to the outside so it can improve the creativity of employees. That gave us the opportunity to have 75 percent of our office space around natural light.''
The goal, he said, was to take a culturally sensitive approach in building design, to help retain employees and keep them happy. It's part of a larger company strategy to localize operations with Chinese staff.
The company makes Bluetooth-brand and other wireless products there, and has a small plastics injection molding operation on-site. More strategically, it has developed several new products at the factory's design studios in an attempt to meet local tastes and have a competitive cost structure.
``We want to be seen as a Chinese operation, not as an American company operating in China,'' he said. ``We want to do a market study and see what Chinese people see in headsets. We want to develop those headsets locally with our local talents. We want to manufacture them with our local resources and sell them with our local sales team.''
Construction did run into some very local challenges. At one point, Pineda was at his home in the U.S. when he received a frantic phone call from China: Local farmers had blocked access to the Suzhou site. The farmers were unhappy that construction trucks were driving back and forth over their farmland; the area was so new that there were no roads for the company to use. Pineda immediately flew to China to talk with local officials, who built a road for the trucks.
Before construction began at the site, the land had about 10 trees. Plantronics took all of them, planted them elsewhere for several months during construction, and then moved the same trees back to the site, where they are today, Pineda said.
``That gave us a point on LEED,'' he said. ``It's really how you conserve the surrounding environment.''
The company had hoped to conserve more energy by using solar power, but Pineda said Chinese laws make that difficult. Those laws prevent companies like Plantronics from selling excess power they generate back to the power grid, as the firm does in Mexico and the U.S. That lack increases payback time on solar investment from seven years in the U.S. to more than 11 years in China, he said.
``Solar has a high front-end cost [but] there is no encouragement from the authorities for savings if you create your own energy,'' Pineda said. ``In Mexico and the U.S., we receive a lot of benefits from solar.''
While there have been challenges in building green in China, he said Plantronics did not have doubts about pursuing green initiatives and LEED certification there. He cautioned others interested in taking the course to focus on benefits and not get stuck thinking only about the hassles.
``For me, it's a no brainer,'' he said. ``You can look your employees in the eye and say, `This is a good place to work. This is a safe place to work.' ''