Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Green IT: Moving Lean from the shop floor to the data centre

June 10, 2009
By George R. Goodall

Green is the new black. It’s hard to pick up a newspaper in the early 21st century without being assaulted by messages about the environment. If it’s not climate change then it’s toxic spills. Manufacturers have responded with a variety of new controls and lean processes. Unfortunately, this diligence hasn’t extended to IT operations. It’s time to explore green for the IT department. But do it for the bottom line.

Manufacturers that ignore environmental issues face government fines, boycotts, and rising operating costs due to inefficiencies. Sony, for example, spent more than $130 million in 2001 when the Dutch government banned its PlayStations due to toxic levels of cadmium. In 2004, Dupont was fined $16.5 million(US) by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and suffered public outrage as information surfaced about the dangers of Teflon. GE, on the other hand, was able to identify tens of millions of dollars worth of inefficiencies through IT-driven environmental performance monitoring and resource management. These cases demonstrate that green – or the lack-thereof – can have an impact on the bottom line.

Manufacturers have responded to these threats through efficiency improvements to both planning and manufacturing execution. Unfortunately, IT itself is often forgotten in these initiatives. Info-Tech Research Group data indicates that only 14 per cent of IT managers in manufacturing are "very concerned" about energy efficiency (versus 25 per cent for other industries) and only 10 per cent have budget allocation for green IT projects. Furthermore, only six per cent of manufacturers consider their IT operations to be "very green" (compared to nine per cent for other industries). The news isn’t completely dismal. Manufacturing IT departments are aggressive in pursuing strategies such as rightsizing IT equipment (23 per cent) and server consolidation/virtualization (50 per cent). But why aren’t they doing more?

Consider these figures. Info-Tech Research Group numbers from 2006 indicate that IT spend in manufacturing accounts for 2.5per cent of revenue. This value is nothing to sneeze at considering that manufacturers spent seven per cent of revenue on compensation, 26 per cent on materials, and one per cent on electricity during the same period (US Census Bureau).


And there’s lots of room for improvement. Data centres, for example, have 10 to 30 times the energy requirement (and cost) of an equivalent sized office space and power and cooling account for an average of 20 per cent of data center budgets. While hardware costs have generally decreased, electricity costs continue to increase. So what can IT managers do today to bring lean and green processes into their own shops? Here’s a quick list of suggestions:

• Improve airflow management and cooling capacity. Almost 60 per cent of the cold air supplied to the data centre is wasted due to poor airflow. Poor airflow management decreases the cooling capacity by 50 per cent or more. To improve efficiency move existing equipment, separate hot/cool airflows, enclose rack aisles, and improve air transfer across floor/ceiling plenums. A complimentary strategy involves liquid cooling. It is more efficient than traditional air cooling and can reduce cooling costs by as much as 50 per cent. Unfortunately, it’s not cheap at about $25,500 for a one-rack setup or between $300 and $400 per server blade.

• Pursue rebates from utilities. Utility companies have incentives to counter the rampant energy consumption of data centers. PG&E offers rebates ($700 to $1,000 per server) for Sun Microsystems’ energy-efficient Sun Fire T1000 and T2000 servers, and rebates for server consolidation. Avista Corp, meanwhile, offers rebates (up to $3,600 per rack) for liquid cooling-enabled servers.

• Seek more efficient power supplies. A server rack drawing 20 kW of power consumes more that $17,000 per year in electricity, not including air conditioning. Switching to efficient power supplies can yield $5,000 per server rack per year in energy savings.

• Investigate economizers. Airside economizers bring in cool outside air when weather conditions permit, thus reducing the burden on air conditioning units. Waterside economizers provide cool water from rooftop water towers for chilled-water air conditioning. Depending on outside conditions, an economizer can reduce cooling costs by 60 per cent.

• Make the switch to DC. Fully 11 per cent of data center energy consumption is related to power conversion. Enterprises can achieve between 10 per cent and 20 per cent energy savings by switching to DC-powered equipment. DC servers are cheaper to run but they may cost a premium of up to 30 per cent to buy.

Lean and green thinking for manufacturing should extend beyond the shop floor. Most data centre operations are ripe for improvement. Applying a few green principals can minimize energy use in the data centre. And it will help erase some of the red from the financial books.

George R. Goodall is a Senior Research Analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in Toronto. You can reach him at

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