In 2002, I needed a change to my working environment as my body was withering away from endless hours at the computer as a web page designer since the dawn of the internet. To remedy the situation, I looked for a job doing some good old fashioned manual labour and luckily, a small company near my home town confidently named Excellent Systems needed a hand installing plastic floors and door ramps for customers.
After working at Excellent Systems for a few years (and gotten in excellent shape, I might add), I went on to work as a laboratory technician which is what I have been doing ever since. Recently, I visited my old workplace because I heard that Excellent Systems had gone all cradle-to-cradle in their production. Since we are talking about plastics that pose a very real threat to our environment, I had to learn more about what they were doing. Read this article by Steve, and this article by Cynthia to come to grips with the severity of the problem. But first a short introduction to the actual products.
In 1992, Excellent Systems started out with a modular plastic tile for industrial flooring that was soft enough to be comfortable to stand on, yet strong enough for heavy machinery to drive on. In 1996, the company expanded the product line to the rehabilitation industry.
Since floors and ramps had proved useful in industrial environments, the system was easily applicable to the often challenging environments in which wheelchairs need access. Because the material is light, strong, and modular with its building-block approach, it is easy to both install and remove.
Accessibility is now one of Excellent Systems specialties. This applies to both industrial ramps, wheelchair ramps, offsetting level differences of bathrooms, threshold ramps and more.
To sum it all up, the current product at Excellent Systems includes:
- All-purpose ramps
- Comfort flooring
- Slip-resistant flooring that can be used in most environments including oil, drilling mud, and more
- Stackable paving supports for raising or leveling flat roof terraces and balconies
- Spacers for paving and local drainage solutions
Intelligent Use Of Resources
My former boss, founder, and owner of Excellent Systems, Ole Frederiksen, welcomed me back in the factory premises, which covers about a hectare of land, and my immediate impression was that not much had changed. Ole explained to me that I probably had not noticed, that even at the time I worked there the factory was already ahead of its time. And now, they were going all-in.
“When I founded this company in 1992 the first thing I did was invest in a closed loop water cooling/heating system,” Ole explained. “You see, our molding machines need a lot of cooling and our rooms need heating, so it only seemed logical to build a system to utilize that from the very beginning. Some thought I was wasting my money and told me to just use tap-water because it was cheaper!” Ole shrugged. He knew he had made the right decision. “This system has returned its investment several times over, and tap-water has not exactly gotten cheaper has it?”
Ole Frederiksen has an eye for making clever use of the resources in his business. His father, who was a plastics pioneer himself, taught him that minimizing waste in the process was just good business. In fact, Ole is of the impression that there is no such thing as waste. Everything has circular potential. It’s as simple as that.
In 1960, Ole Frederiksen’s father told his son that the world would be sorry for all the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in circulation, due to its many harmful properties. He thought there was a very useful alternative material in the domain of plastics: Polyethylene.
The raw material used at Excellent Systems is called polyethylene (PE). It comes in a variety of different molecular structures like the soft low density polyethylene (LDPE) and the harder high density polyethylene (HDPE). In LDPE, the chains of PE are a mixture of short and long, with a high degree of branching that makes the material soft. HDPE on the other hand, is mostly comprised of long chains of PE that run in parallel, promoting crystalline microstructures that make it harder.
The material is polymerized from gaseous ethene (also called ethylene). Polyethylene is completely non-toxic and can be reused many times over. In the event of it being incinerated it releases nothing more than water and carbon dioxide, although it may result in harmful gaseous emissions if not done efficiently.
The polymerization process has been refined and improve significantly since it was first commercially introduced in 1939, although the allies tried to keep it a secret in World War II since it was an excellent insulator for high frequency radio waves. Today, the polymerization process is mostly done with various catalytic materials like metal chlorides and oxides.
As of 2017, over 100 million tonnes of polyethylene resins are produced annually, accounting for 34% of the total plastics market. Although ethene gas can be produced from renewable resources, it is mainly obtained from petroleum or natural gas. Because polyethylene is not easily biodegradable, it is very important not to accumulate the stuff as waste and not to burn it, because doing so releases the original fossil carbon source as CO2 into the atmosphere.
Ever since Excellent Systems began its production of plastic components, it has encouraged customers to return their used materials at the end of life instead of disposing of them. This idea has now matured into a rigid and well organized “Take Back” system, where special collection containers are used to transport the old materials in the most efficient manner back to the factory. At the factory, the end of life products are granulated and cleaned, ready to be used in new products.
“We are all scared about the enormous amounts of plastics in our oceans, but you know what? The plastics didn’t walk into the oceans by themselves now did they?” Ole asks rhetorically. “It’s a matter of controlling the logistics of plastics as a resource, and it’s really not that difficult in principle. It’s actually more difficult to recycle wood when you think about it.”
Non-toxic, LDPE and HDPE can be fully reused and at the end of the useful life of the product, they can be recycled into other items. The production is completely waste-free. Defective products, leftovers after assembly, and worn, broken residues of ramps or tiles, are all recycled.
I asked Ole if the company was Cradle-to-Cradle certified? He was blunt in his reply: “Let me tell you something, certification is often, although not always, a smart way to make money pushing papers around. I don’t play that game. I act according to my ethics. There is no time to waste.” Indeed, the man doesn’t even like thinking of time going to waste!
85% of Excellent Systems’ products are exported. In Venice, Italy, for example, the flexible ramps have been used to create easier access to old bridges and other buildings, without having to disturb or alter the original architecture. If removed, it does not leave a trace. There are also many colors and textures to choose from to make the somewhat alien material blend into, say, marble.
Having a worldwide market no doubt presents a challenge to take responsibility for the recycling of the product. To help with this, Excellent Systems use traceable rigid logistics, including clever solutions in packaging to make its business more sustainable from end to end.
“We are getting close to 100%, but it’s been hard work” Ole said. “Take for instance the containers we use to collect end-of-life products, both domestic and abroad. The cost is on us, but if you plan ahead, even that will pay off in a cradle-to-cradle setup. It just takes more time.” Now that’s a new way of thinking about the old “time is money” phrase.
Savings On Power
At one point the company had peak power use of 250 kW of electricity for the machines on the factory floor. The oldest molding machine is almost 50 years old and is from a time in industrial history where hardware was made to last forever. Simple and robust 3-phase induction motors pumping hydraulic fluids through high pressure circuits that actuate the various mechanical element in the molding process, some of which apply pressures of several hundreds of tonnes on a surface area of a frisbee. Maybe Excellent Systems should make Excellent Frisbees, too? On second thought, people throw those into nature all the time, never mind.
“But there is a problem with these old machines,” Ole said. “First of all it’s hard to get spare parts, but apart from that, they use more power than they have to.” Indeed, before the age of control electronics, the motors run non-stop and valves direct the hydraulic fluids to either where they are needed, or in idle time to a return loop. “Let me show you how we saved 10% in power virtually overnight.” Ole points to a few new machines.
At first glance I see they do the same thing as the old one, but then I realize how quiet they are. The silence is only interrupted with short whirring sounds. Mechanics meets control electronics. It’s quite fascinating when you experience a physically similar process side by side with machinery 50 years apart in technological innovation. You know what I mean if you have ever driven an electric car.
“The motor only powers up when hydraulic pressure is needed. No valves!” Incredible. I know from when I was working with these products that these machines perform high precision moulding of high temperature liquid polyethylene. That is not something you want squirting all over the place. These new, and much smaller electric motors work at extremely high efficiency, torque, and precision. Take home message: an electric motor is not just an electric motor.
In fact, it may be that the different combinations of operating principles (brushed, brushless, DC, AC, induction, reluctance, etc.) outnumber those of internal combustion engines (2-stroke, 4-stroke, OHC, turbo, etc.). And unlike internal combustion engines where optimization has probably peaked, I think we are still in for some efficiency surprises in the electronically controlled electric motor domain.
Wind And Solar
Since 2009, Ole Frederiksen has had an application lying dormant at the local authorities for putting up a 500 kW nameplate capacity wind turbine which on average would match the factory’s energy use. “It would be a perfect solution for us, because we can easily adjust production capacity to match the power output from an intermittent source of electricity,” Ole said. “But for some reason the project has stranded in bureaucracy and it puzzles me beyond belief.”
It’s ironic, because in the last 10 years power output from Danish wind turbines has surged, so maybe Ole’s wind project will eventually outdate itself, and Excellent Systems will never achieve full control over its electricity cost. No wonder the green economy sometimes drags its feet when people with ambitions like Ole Frederiksen are held hostage by bureaucracy.
Apart from wind, Ole wants to install a photovoltaic solar system. However, the roof for optimal use with the potential of shaving 20% off the electricity bill sits on a rented building, so that’s not going to happen unless Excellent Systems is able to purchase the building.
High Local Ambitions, Slow Global Progress
Ole Frederiksen is a stubborn man. He knows the worth of his own ideas, and his priorities are straight forward: do good business and don’t mess things up — least of all our planet.
It’s funny how you can talk to someone you think you know, but after many years, still hear something new. Ole has always had his aims right on target, but I had to get older and gain interest in the idea of sustainability before I really understood his goals and felt his passion myself.
On top of all the innovation and cradle-to-cradle production principles, Excellent Systems has a clear strategy when it comes to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), with a focus on improving the work environment and employee well-being.
There must be thousands of businesses around world who share the same production and work ethics as Excellent Systems. It is important that we remember to applaud them for their relentless efforts to create sustainable industries in a world still all too dominated by the antiquated produce-consume-waste paradigm.
All images by Excellent Systems and the author