Customers Demand Sustainability, but Does it Pay Off?

The HTWK Leipzig offers the bachelor’s program Packaging Technology and Sustainability, which focuses on the processes for the production of packaging materials and packaging aids as well as the production of packaging. Prof. Eugen Herzau, Dean of the Packaging Technology Department, about the topic of sustainability in mechanical engineering.

What role does the topic of “sustainability” play for mechanical engineers in the packaging industry?

The topic of sustainability has arrived in the industry. Mechanical engineering companies have changed their processes over the past decades. They have developed modules that make machine parts easier to combine. This has changed production, but also energy efficiency, maintenance and servicing: machines use less energy, cleaning the machine is easier or even takes place during operation (Clean in Process, CIP).

Other improvements also point in the direction of sustainability, such as remote maintenance. Machines are being equipped with more and more sensors in ever greater detail, error diagnosis systems are becoming better and better, and error tolerance is getting smaller and smaller, right through to self-optimizing machines. At the same time, these enable more efficient production, which in turn leads to less waste, for example. This is where development is heading.

The range of measures is very wide: faster format changes enable shorter start-up and shut-down times, thus reducing waste. By optimizing cleanliness and operating in a quasi-aseptic state, the products packaged on the machines have a longer shelf life. All these are factors of sustainability.

The machines optimized in terms of sustainability serve a specific market. But why do machine manufacturers publish reports that document the sustainability of their own machine production?

Clearly, machine builders must gain financial benefits from their investments in sustainability, otherwise they risk their survival. The issue of sustainability has not only an ecological dimension, but also an economic one. When I was appointed professor at the university in 1992, the Packaging Ordinance came into force. Since then, the issue of sustainability has played a role in this industry. In principle, it is the same for machine manufacturers as it is for consumers: the customer is decisive, he has to reward the ecological factors.

The sustainability triangle is formed by economy, ecology and social commitment. A lot has been done in the latter area in particular: Today, employees have a better working environment. And this is also perceived by customers. After all, these are often brand-name companies, which in turn are sensitized by consumers in this respect: If companies come to the companies for machine acceptance and see an oily factory hall there, this has a negative effect on the machine manufacturer. And that is not the only reason why things have changed so much: Today, there are assembly halls where they can eat off the floor – this level of cleanliness is simply part of today’s world.

So it is the customers who want to impress the machine builders. Do sustainability reports also play a role in employee recruitment?

Absolutely! Such a report shows a prospective employee where he or she will be working, what the company is doing and is thus a mirror of the expected level and survivability. We have also noticed that the topic has gained in importance in our course of studies: since the renaming to “Packaging Technology and Sustainability”, the number of students has increased.

How are graduates of the program received in industry? Are jobs with this focus also offered?

The demand for well-trained graduates of our program has been good to very good for many years. Our “customers” can be found in all industries. Packaging material and packaging material manufacturers, the food, pharmaceutical, cosmetics and consumer goods industries, mechanical engineering companies and the automotive industry and its suppliers offer very interesting fields of work. In recent years, the job descriptions have been expanded in the direction of sustainability.

What is the international perception of the topic?

It varies. People like Trump and Putin are not interested in it. But many of the companies in these countries do. The requirements of a company like Nestlé are the same in Russia as in Switzerland.

Companies that publish a sustainability report are sometimes suspected of having it merely as a fig leaf and actually pursuing a different agenda, i.e. “green washing”. How do you assess this?

This is not trivial! In the automotive industry, we are just seeing the consequences of just claiming ecological measures. I don’t know why a company should expose itself to the risk of being pilloried in the end.

Sustainability costs money. What about the relationship between costs and benefits?

This cannot be generalized and is an individual decision. It certainly also depends on where the machines are used. Particularly with regard to the degree of automation and the desired increases in efficiency, there are major international differences, which machine manufacturers address individually with their configurations. After all, they are also in competition with other companies, and in the end it is of course also a question of price – you have to be able to afford sustainability from a business management point of view.

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