Interview: Saint Gobain committed to go the extra mile to create sustainable products

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Hitesh Chawhan is an Applications Manager at Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and his current responsibilities include developing new applications, project management, product design & validation, technical sales & trouble-shooting.

Chris Needes is an expert in process benchmarking, application development, costing, materials and material forming processes and project management. In his current position as Global Market Manager Automotive Chassis at Saint Gobain, his role includes business planning, developing global strategies, developing new applications, marketing materials and training materials.

Does Saint-Gobain have a sustainability/carbon reduction goal for 2011 or the near future?
Chris Needs & Hitesh Chawhan: Saint-Gobain offers not only a broad range of innovative and environmentally-friendly solutions and services, but also a commitment towards making further progress by continuously investing in and maintaining comprehensive R&D programs. We are committed to providing innovative solutions that meet the double challenge of saving energy and protecting the environment. Through our products, our company undertakes the promotion of renewable energies and greener vehicles as well as raise awareness on environmental issues.

In September 2007, the group management set priorities and quantitative objectives for the entire Group for the period 2008 – 2010 in the areas of health, deploying safety standards (reducing the frequency rate of workplace injuries) and environmental protection safety (optimizing the use of materials and reducing emission levels). As with our other divisions, the Performance Plastics division has taken several active steps in developing innovative solutions that reduce CO2 emissions. The results obtained have been encouraging, and we look forward to a new set of such objectives in the near future.

What are some of the key sustainability initiatives or accomplishments of the company?
Chris Needs & Hitesh Chawhan: Our commitment towards sustainable development is also reflected in figures: around 30% of our net sales and 40% of our operating profit are derived from solutions that save energy, enable clean energy production, and help protect the environment.

Saint-Gobain has always been active in promoting sustainability and in January 2009 the Group endorsed the Caring for Climate statement and the CEO Water Mandate, two key initiatives that complement the UN Global Compact. Just last year, Saint-Gobain was also included in the Carbon Disclosure Leadership Index (CDLI) of the 51 top companies amongst the Global 500 for the quality of the information it provided regarding its CO2 emissions. Saint-Gobain was ranked 5th in the “industrial” segment.

Not only does Saint-Gobain take great steps in ensuring that our products are energy efficient and environmentally-friendly, enhancing the quality of life of our consumers also remains a top priority. As a company, we also are committed towards protecting the health and safety of our employees. Saint-Gobain is committed to going the extra mile, and rather than simply complying with regulations, we actively focus on minimizing the environmental impact of our processes.

Can you share any potential low carbon/sustainable technology or products that you may be working on?
Chris Needs & Hitesh Chawhan: Saint-Gobain has always been concerned about the environment, and we take every care to reduce our carbon footprint. Last month, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics launched its innovative range of NORGLIDE® bearings at the Vehicle Dynamics Expo in Stuttgart, Germany. The NORGLIDE® H- and T-type bearings for vehicle components were launched at this show. Not only was this launch in tune with our own sustainability goals, manufacturers and brand owners will also benefit from the increased efficiency and reduced weight of these new bearings.

Our RENCOL® tolerance rings were also on display at this show. These tolerance rings not only enable vehicles to save energy, they also are environment-friendly and improve the overall vehicle performance whilst extending the life of the vehicle.

Can you elaborate more on the NORGLIDE® yoke bearings product? Why is this product relevant in today’s automobile market?
Chris Needs & Hitesh Chawhan: As fuel prices continue to go up, there is bound to be an increased demand for more efficient cars. Similarly, automobile manufacturers are also increasingly facing pressure from businesses and consumers to significantly reduce the amount of carbon emissions. In other words, car manufacturers will now be looking at ways to improve their engine efficiency while at the same time cutting down on greenhouse emissions. Taking these into consideration, Saint-Gobain needed bearings which accommodated both carbon and weight reduction demands. With NORGLIDE® yoke bearings, we have not only succeeding in providing a lower weight product but also shaped a solution that reduced noise pollution, had a high load capacity, and extended life.

How long did it take to create this product – from the basic idea to the finished product?
Chris Needes: With regards to NORGLIDE® yoke bearings, we have been trialing this technology over the last 8 years – with a few other designs that are still in pilot production. The basic idea behind NORGLIDE® yoke bearings is simple- this product is is essentially a metal reinforced, self-lubricated plain bearing coated with a layer of low friction PTFE. This combination successfully reduces noise and chatter of thrust yoke and rack. Though the NORGLIDE® yoke bearings represent an innovation for the industry, we believe that we can further refine this technology as we continue to research on ways to more efficiently utilize PTFE.

During the conception of our innovative bearings, our bearings experts also took into account the shift from hydraulic to electric power assisted steering systems (EPAS). Steering systems traditionally used hydraulic motor systems, which required a great deal of energy since the system was constantly rotating. In contrast, the EPAS is only activated when the steering is rotated, thus effectively reducing overall energy consumption as well as carbon emission levels. With electric power steering  enabling lower friction, there is now a good possibility of reducing the size and weights of electric motors while simultaneously improving the user’s driving experience. 

Increasingly, the traditional hydraulic steering system is being replaced by the lighter and more cost-effective EPAS systems. The environmental-friendliness of EPAS has led to the adoption of EPAS as a new industry standard and already, the use of such electric steering systems account for 80% of the market in developed countries like Europe, America, and Japan.

How is the NORGLIDE® yoke bearings more sustainable than the traditional bearings?
Chris Needs & Hitesh Chawhan: We do not have exact figures on the magnitude of difference in steering weight or amount of carbon emissions reduction between traditional and our innovative steering systems. At the moment NORGLIDE® bearings are still a relatively new introduction and we are in the initial stages of compiling quantitative research data. We do however have comparative data on our yoke bearing versus competitor yoke bearings in terms of friction and magnitude of differences between friction. Obviously this links to weight and size of motor because with increase in friction motor needed to drive the rack shaft also increases in size. As electric steering motors can be designed with smaller loads in mind, such motors are effectively ‘greener’; a smaller motor means that the weight of the steering system can be reduced, meaning that the entire vehicle now weighs less.

What has been the adoption rate of the NORGLIDE® yoke bearings product?
Chris Needs & Hitesh Chawhan: At the moment, one of the main challenges we face includes convincing customers that changing a standard geometry in connection with alterative materials can in fact improve performance. We are currently investing in testing technology and services for this application, and hopefully this will help convince both potential and current customers and help them see the real benefits. We will say that while the potential adoption rate of this innovative piece of technology is a little slow to start with, we are confident that once a few more models are in production a more qualitative benchmark for the industry will emerge and lead to more OEMs seeking this technology.           

How relevant do you think a product like this would be in the Indian automobile market?
Hitesh Chawhan: In the Indian steering systems market, manual steering, hydraulic power steering and EPAS are in use though 80% of the Indian markets are still utilizing hydraulic power steering systems. Like China (EPAS only takes 10% Chinese market share), India’s adoption rate of the new system is relatively low. Though not widely used, EPAS systems are available in India and are typically found in premium brand cars imported from Europe, Japan or America. The EPAS market in India is emerging steadily, as consumer awareness on the benefits of power steering grows. EPAS systems are expected to have a 20% share of the market by end of 2011, and we believe that this market definitely has the potential for dynamic growth in near term.

This interview was conducted by Pramita Sen from the editorial team of India Carbon Outlook.

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Author: Pramita Sen