Tucked away in a nondescript industrial park off the I-95 corridor, Chrome Deposit Corp.’s facility in Newark, Del., is a small site making big changes. The Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a nonprofit resource organization that provides technical field agents and consultants to help the state’s manufacturers improve productivity and profitability, has identified Chrome Deposit as a potential candidate to receive an Energy Savings Assessment through the University of Delaware’s Industrial Assessment Center.

Chrome’s executives partnered with the university’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Industrial Technologies Program to explore ways to reduce energy consumption and environmental impact while continuing to expand operations. With a few changes to infrastructure and preemptive management of operational processes, Chrome has lowered its energy costs by 25 percent per unit, minimized its environmental impact, and continues to seek improvements to its energy management practices.

Chrome, headquartered in Portage, Ind., reconditions finishing work rolls, which require grinding, chrome plating and/or texturing. The rolls are used on rolling mills to provide superior finishes on both steel and aluminum sheets. The firm’s Newark facility specializes in hard-chrome plating and electro-discharge texturing of the product surface prior to plating.

Metal finishing, a subset of the fabricated metal products industry, is largely composed of small, independently owned facilities that employ 50 or fewer people. Generally, these smaller facilities have limited financial resources at their disposal, which in many cases means that energy efficiency initiatives take a backseat to more pressing business objectives. While industry standards, certification requirements and customer demands help to drive improvements in energy efficiency and technology, economic pressures often mean their most viable option is to retrofit existing equipment as opposed to investing in wholesale process changes.

Plating 'Eats' Fuel

Working with hard chrome during the plating process holds inherent environmental implications. Chrome Deposit must contend with byproduct air emissions and waste, and the plating process itself is energy intensive, relying on both electrical and natural gas resources to fuel operations. Between 2002 and 2004, electricity represented approximately half of the industry’s energy costs, with purchased fuels (primarily natural gas) comprising the remaining portion.

Since production began in 1986, Chrome has tracked its energy usage and costs, keeping pace with its growth. In a judicious effort to enhance its portfolio of responsible business practices, the company initiated an Energy Savings Assessment through DOE-ITP’s Industrial Assessment Center program. The finisher also collaborated with an assessment team from the university’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy to identify areas of concern and potential sources of energy savings. In addition to the assessment, Chrome’s management group began its own energy efficiency initiatives to focus attention on operating practices, operations-related water use and reductions, and fuel efficiency of its truck fleet.

Results of the energy assessment pointed to six distinct areas through which technological and process improvements could capture energy savings in both quantity and cost. Of the recommendations, the plating company pursued four, and plans to employ an additional recommendation over time as equipment upgrades are required. The only recommendation the firm declined to implement after investigation required both process automation and the installation of specific process controls.

Burning Rich

The assessment team recommended an analysis of stack gases from the boilers used for heating chrome tanks and wastewater evaporation. The analysis revealed that the boilers were burning rich, which prompted technicians to adjust boiler settings to achieve the recommended burn ratios. Very quickly, Chrome’s employees noted savings from the boiler adjustments that actually were higher than had been estimated. The immediate success of this simple manipulation caught the attention of the plater’s executives, and within weeks the facility’s gas lines were being checked for proper functioning. This inspection exposed a number of small joint leaks. After repairs, additional fuel savings were realized. In all, and the company’s natural gas consumption dropped 12 percent despite increased production.

The company also saw a drastic reduction in water use. Initially, city water cooled the plant’s rectifiers. Chrome bought two chillers and implemented a closed-loop system to cool heated components, resulting in a staggering 85 percent drop in water use.

Chrome approached energy efficiency with some trepidation. While management embraced the concept and had the will to mitigate its environmental impact, the team was not prepared for the straightforward assessment and analysis process, nor had managers truly anticipated the quickness with which results would be realized. Although total energy expenditures increased by 5 percent from its 2007 data baseline, electrical use was reduced 18 percent per unit and natural gas use declined 35 percent per unit. Ultimately, the firm’s cost per unit dropped approximately 25 percent from both energy sources combined.

The facility’s success now is being used as a benchmark within the company’s network of plants. The Newark site’s energy efficiency efforts have not stopped. The management group has set an internal goal of increasing the miles per gallon of its truck fleet by 5 percent, and it has purchased truck mud flaps that are expected to reduce underside drag on the trailers, which ultimately will boost fuel mileage.

Sidebar: Your Government Gives Back

The U.S. Department of Energy and its Industrial Technologies Program established the Industrial Assessment Center to help businesses calculate and lower their energy use by:
  • Providing small- and medium-size manufacturers (gross annual sales < $100 million) with free energy assessments.

  • Having local teams of engineering faculty and students from 26 participating universities across the country perform the assessments.

  • Serving as a training ground for the next generation of energy-savvy engineers, providing valuable hands-on experience to college students.

  • Saving facilities that participate in the program an average of $55,000 a year with a payback period of 12 months.