By Meg Turville-Heitz
Beer—a beverage considered by some to be as old as a civilization.
While a brewmaster’s recipe may not have changed for decades, maybe centuries, engineering efficiencies has become a goal for an industry that uses tremendous amounts of energy and water. The process of making beer is changing as breweries take a closer look at increasing sustainability in the manufacturing process. Many breweries are upgrading and expanding into new operations to meet demand, while the large global breweries are looking to make their products more efficiently.
“Sustainability is a concept of rapidly increasing importance in the brewing industry,” says Ryan Griffin, a sustainability advisor with See the Forest, LLC, and a former asset management engineer at MillerCoors, which remains a client. As a student in the Master of Engineering in Sustainable Systems Engineering (SSE) program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison he has worked to spread ideas learned from a systems perspective to the organization. “One such idea is using the concept of industrial ecology to analyze resource use throughout our supply chain,” says Griffin. “We are now beginning to build long-term partnerships with our material suppliers to design sustainability into how we operate. This could mean helping barley farmers grow their grain with less water, or our packaging suppliers use less energy to produce their materials.”
He notes that water and energy efficiency per barrel of beer brewed “are two metrics the company has actively worked to improve for the last five years. Two MillerCoors breweries are already at world class levels of water consumption per barrel” or less than a ratio of 3:1 water use to beer, and “others are close behind,” he says. Additionally, six of the company’s eight breweries have achieved goals of zero waste to landfills.
Smaller breweries such as New Glarus Brewing Company in southern Wisconsin and Ale Asylum in Madison, Wisconsin have embraced sustainable changes as well, building efficiencies and recycling into their breweries as they doubled their capacity.
While brewers may talk about solutions in terms of the mechanical changes they have added to their facility, sustainability engineers move beyond the component level, to seeing the entire life cycle of the product from input to disposal of the finished product, says Marty Gustafson, UW–Madison Department of Engineering Professional Development program director for SSE. What’s most optimal for the company can also be most optimal for the environment and society, says Gustafson. “Sustainability looks at three areas: environment, economy and society,” she says, and the school’s master’s program teaches engineers how to view these three areas from the raw materials to the consumer’s final consumption from a more circular and less linear perspective. “Engineers look at a machine; a systems engineer looks at the bottleneck and sees that really, for example, it’s that the supplier requirements could be better.”
Griffin says the skills and tools he’s gained in the program have helped him identify and prioritize tasks, and help production teams focus on what matters most. “It’s easy to let ourselves think that our problems are either too big to solve or, on the flip side, to oversimplify and expect easy answers without knowing the consequences of our decisions. SSE has taught me to look at situations holistically,” says Griffin. For example, he is leading an initiative at MillerCoors to reduce office paper usage. “Most people don’t realize how much paper it takes to brew and ship beer in a company that’s been around for 158 years,” says Griffin. He notes that looking at the root causes of waste, outdated systems, work practices and unneeded consumption has led to more than $140,000 in savings in copy paper alone, with almost no financial investment.
“Maybe more importantly, the same project has saved over 1,200 trees, one million gallons of water, 600 megawatt hours of electricity, 50 tons of waste and has helped people work more productively at the same time,” says Griffin.
Pat Eagan, an instructor with the SSE program notes that engineers are “pretty good at optimizing systems. What we’re not good at is linking systems,” which often results in unforeseen consequences. “It’s huge to be a sustainable engineer. You have to have that cultural understanding” of the corporate philosophy, the workers roles in production, and thinking about environmental justice, ecosystem influences and infrastructure. Engineering “doesn’t stop at the boundary of the highway” he says, and thus students in his program learn to ask the right questions and to use various tools to help them develop a process of life cycle thinking through industrial ecology. They pair these with a tailor-made road map to competencies the student wants to achieve, such as breaking down the production process of how something is done in a workplace, evaluating personal skills and professionalism and then what is needed to do the job. Such processes include understanding the human component of sustainability as well.
“We have actually done some research at MillerCoors that found that at least two thirds of the change required to enhance sustainability comes from human and management changes vs. capital and engineering changes,” says Griffin. He notes that with the Go Paperless project he initiated “probably 90 percent of my time was spent on the culture change, educating and motivating people. Very little was spent actually implementing technical solutions.” He also found he’s learned skills from the program to help him present a business case for sustainable investment to management in terms that are most likely to resonate at the corporate level.
Gustafson agrees that most of the changes are done because sustainability is an end goal, but SSE students like Griffin learn how to pitch the cost reduction, whether the change is being driven from the top down or the bottom up.
“I believe that much of the immediate change needed to protect our climate and resources will come from the business world,” says Griffin. To that end, he notes that MillerCoors has helped him start his consulting business to help “local organizations incorporate sustainability, industrial ecology and systems thinking into their operating models. There is a huge opportunity right now for business, municipalities, and non-profits alike to find ways to become more ecologically responsible while saving money and improving performance.”
And, of course, making the perfect beer more perfect.
Read more on Sustainable Craft Brewers.
Find out more about the Master of Engineering in Sustainable Systems Engineering by visiting sse.engr.wisc.edu or email Marty Gustafson SSE program director.
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