Pushing Limits

Volvo Trucks’ new VNL and VNR models feature the latest in vehicle technology and driver comfort. They are also built in a factory that sets the standard for environmental care.
Inside NRV plant
With the production of the new Volvo VNL and VNR models, the New River Valley Plant managed to reduce volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions by more than 50 per cent.

Over the last fifteen years, Volvo Trucks’ New River Valley plant, NRV, has been transformed into a model for energy efficiency and responsible waste management. Volvo Trucks customers have taken notice – especially those who have made protecting the environment a priority in their own businesses.

“Focusing on efficiency and sustainability is important to our mission of driving prosperity for transport solutions,” says Patrick Collignon, senior vice president, Group Trucks Operations for North American Manufacturing and former NRV plant manager. “That’s why care for the environment is embedded into our management models and decision-making processes.”

NRV’s environmental journey began after a group of employees identified and evaluated all liquid and solid waste streams in the plant’s operations. They encouraged employees to recycle as much trash as possible to reduce the amount sent to area landfills.

Large volume segments like cardboard and plastic are compacted and baled on site prior to recycling. Food composting was initiated in many areas of the plant and the cafeterias switched to compostable plates, cups and utensils. On the production floor, teams have been successful in separating recyclable material into 22 different recycling streams. Also, paint purge solvents are recovered, distilled and reconstituted to the original specifications for reuse in the paint shop.

Then, in 2009, NRV’s leadership raised the bar.

“Our immediate priority was to reduce our energy footprint, so we had our first energy treasure hunt that year,” Collignon says. “The best energy is energy you don’t need, and it was a fun way to get everyone involved.”

Employees responded by submitting hundreds of energy-saving ideas – from simple solutions like turning off vending machine lights to streamlining assembly processes. Solar panels were added along the driveway to the main entrance. New skylights reduced the need for artificial light. Solar-powered water heaters were installed in several areas such as cafeterias and locker rooms.

These and other initiatives helped NRV become the first US facility to achieve dual certification from the leading global and national agencies for environmental management: the ISO 50001 standard and platinum-level recognition by the US Department of Energy’s Superior Energy Performance program.

Along with the energy savings, NRV is now a zero landfill waste facility. That means 100 per cent of the manufacturing waste generated is recycled, composted or converted to electricity.

In 2014 the plant achieved one of its most ambitious goals yet: the switch to carbon-neutral electricity. All electric power for the plant now comes from methane gas produced at 13 area landfills.

Along with the cab, a small metallic panel is also painted, which is a vital part of quality control. Once completed, the panel is taken to the paint lab, where it is inserted into a spectrophotometer and compared with the master colour in the main database. Since so many colours and shades are alike, a small variation can easily be missed by the human eye. If the spectrophotometer does detect a discrepancy, the cab is returned to the line to be repainted.

“We always need to be willing to push the limits of what’s possible,” Collignon says. “At the same time, we have to consider the financial impact and recognize that what works in one location may not be an option at another.”

The drive for greater efficiency at NRV is also evident on the factory floor. Just in time for the new VNL and VNR production, the plant invested in a more advanced paint overspray control technology that requires no water and uses 60 per cent less energy than the previous process. Powdered limestone captures the overspray – eliminating the need to treat paint sludge – and the limestone waste is reused in cement production. 

With the new paint shop and modifications, volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions per truck have been reduced by greater than 50 per cent. New paint spray technologies were also incorporated in the new paint shop contributing to reductions in paint use per cab.

Production teams have also taken advantage of the latest advanced manufacturing processes to save time and energy. NRV recently added more than 50 new robots in the body-in-white welding shop and expanded its 3D printing operation, which can fabricate parts much faster than traditional machining.

“We have multiple layers with our energy challenge,” Collignon says. “One is human behavior, like turning off lights when you leave a room or not leaving a truck idling too long. Another is examining our manufacturing processes. The more eyes you have on a process, the more people are pointing out things, the easier it will be to find solutions.”

To make a real difference when it comes to environmental care, you need strong management support, the right systems and technology, and full engagement of people across the board

To keep up the momentum for cutting energy use, the plant joined the US Department of Energy’s Save Energy Now program in 2011. The goal was a 25 per cent energy reduction over 10 years – a target NRV exceeded after only one year.

Today, employees are focusing on new environmental goals. A search is underway for a renewable energy source to replace the natural gas now used for heating. The team is also researching ways to generate power onsite as a way to save energy costs.

“To make a real difference when it comes to environmental care, you need strong management support, the right systems and technology, and full engagement of people across the board,” Collignon says. “I’m proud of what we’ve been able to achieve, and I’m looking forward to the next big breakthrough.”

Editorial Note: Effective October 1, a new North American manufacturing structure was established to drive agility and flexibility based on local needs. Franky Marchand, vice president of New River Valley plant, will report to GTO Executive Management Team and executive vice president, Jan Ohlsson. Patrick Collignon (pictured), will take up a new assignment within the Volvo Group.

New River Valley Plant

Builds VNL, VNR, VNX, VHD and VAH models.
2,400 employees.
149,000 square meters / 1.6 million square feet under roof.
Utilised carbon-neutral electricity since 2014.
Zero landfill status since 2013.