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"Make Some Noise"

A visit with Bin Wu, Professor, Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: engineering industrial engineering manufacturing systems energy energy efficiency

Bin Wu has been responding to real-world problems related to industrial systems design for twenty years. “When we talk about industrial system design,” he explains, “we are talking about how to put facilities, people, and information systems together so that this system can function for whatever purpose it was designed to serve,” whether to manufacture or to supply. Traditionally, says Wu, when designing an industrial system our main consideration was always productivity – how to produce or manufacture things more efficiently.

Three years ago, however, the MU Professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering received a wake-up call that changed the direction of his work. Pointing at a framed photograph on his desk, Wu credits his son’s birth with his increased sense of urgency to address environmental issues, and specifically energy efficiency, in his research, teaching, and outreach work. “We’re parents, and we want a good environment for our children,” reflects Wu, who is now deeply aware that when designing and improving systems, particularly industrial systems, “energy has got to be a very important consideration, if not the most important consideration.” Thus, following years of being involved principally with research, Wu now spends more time doing outreach, working with students and the public regarding energy efficiency and the environment. As he puts it, “I feel very strongly that every one of us needs to do something and behave in responsible ways, individually or collectively, to do something about it.”

Wu reacted by becoming more deliberate. He began to incorporate energy efficiency parameters into his research and teaching, and he started to interact more with the public. In September of 2006, he founded the Missouri Industrial Assessment Center, which carries out activities in the areas of research, education, and outreach to promote industrial energy efficiency throughout the state. The IAC also provides practical experience for students, helps manufacturers improve energy efficiency, and contributes to research about best practices in industry, a triple benefit that leads Wu to call its activities a “win, win, win situation.”

As one of only twenty-six such centers funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the IAC conducts free energy audits and workshops for small- or medium-sized manufacturing organizations throughout the state. Through these energy audits, the IAC offers a detailed analysis of a company’s current manufacturing facility and energy profile, identifying a number of recommendations or opportunities that will help reduce their energy consumption for the good of the environment and the company’s utility bills. Beyond a list of recommendations and detailed analysis, the IAC provides monetary figures on how to reduce energy consumption, the expected payback period, and the anticipated level of yearly savings after that. While the recommendations vary depending on the industry, Wu reports that “there are always a few typical areas where industries consume a significant amount of energy, including, for example, lighting, compressed air, boilers, ovens, and so on.”

As to whether the financial cost of implementing energy efficient measures is prohibitive, Wu responds: “Some of the opportunities will involve a significant amount of initial investment. However, there are so many things that do not involve a significant amount of implementation costs.” Lighting is one example. It doesn’t cost much to exchange fluorescent light bulbs for incandescent bulbs, “but the savings is almost immediate because the payback period is only about one year. So after this initial investment, all the savings are pure savings.” In fact, the IAC always tries to identify opportunities that are relatively easy and inexpensive to implement, “so that when we do our economic analysis, the recommendations normally have a payback period of one year.”

While energy efficiency measures usually do not cost much to implement, in some cases a more substantial amount of investment—for example, the installation of a new air compressor system—is recommended. Even in such cases, however, the payback period is usually less than three years. “The fact is, there are so many opportunities that are easily implemented, easily adaptable, and with a relatively short payback period,” Wu explains. “That makes what we do [at the IAC] that much more exciting, that much more rewarding, and that much more urgent. Because we can see that there are so many opportunities, we just want to be able to ‘make a noise,’ to do more in the realm of energy efficiency.”

In the area of energy efficiency, observes Wu regretfully, “there are so many things that can be easily done, but surprisingly, for whatever reason, they are not done. So it’s important for us to raise awareness of this—to scream, if you like. If I have to scream, I will scream.” He offers the example of changing just one light bulb in a home or re-using bags at the grocery store instead of throwing away plastic bags every time: “All we need to do is to change our habits a little bit. There are so many things we can individually do that will collectively have a significant impact on our environment and on the next generation… I just hope we all begin to take this with a sense of urgency.” Wu and his team at the Missouri Industrial Assessment Center are looking to “make some noise” in order to generate the sense of urgency about the environment that our children deserve.

As an educator, Wu has another opportunity to “make some noise.” Teaching offers a wonderful opportunity “to get the message out to students, who are the future, who will have a big impact in the long term.” Hence, he reasons, teaching requires social awareness: “As professors, we try to educate the next generation of professionals, we try to teach them many things technical as well as social and ethical. I have been a professor for all of my professional life—doing research, writing books and other publications, and teaching. I can honestly say that what I’m doing now regarding energy efficiency is absolutely the most fulfilling.”