A Balancing Act: Jets, Sustainability And Innovation
Any facet of aerospace, from production to the actual act of flying massive jets around the world, would appear, at face value, to be in direct opposition to sustainability, or being kind to the environment. And while that’s true to a degree — one cannot escape the necessary burning of fuel to get commercial airliners and fighter jets alike off the ground — it would be ingenuous to state that there’s no concern for the environment among any of the wide array of companies involved in the aerospace industry.
Founded in 1925, Pratt & Whitney (P&W), primarily a manufacturer of aircraft engines for commercial and military applications, is one of those companies deeply concerned about the environmental effects of their business — both in production and in use. That two-pronged approach has led to a number of unique innovations and initiative that have brought the company to the forefront of the effort to become an environmentally and socially responsible global manufacturer.
Along with parent company United Technologies Corporation (UTC), P&W has established extraordinarily stringent sustainability goals for 2025, which will mark its 100th anniversary in business. The company aims to reduce greenhouse gases and water use by 80 percent, with a particular effort on the water front in areas that have more scarce supplies. They aim to recycle a full 100 percent of waste produced in manufacturing, and will use no “materials of concern” in their products and processes. By aggressively holding suppliers to conservation targets, P&W hopes to create a supply chain that is equally conscious of the environment and of its own people.
Of these efforts, Mary Anne Cannon, Vice President of Quality & Environment, Health & Safety, said, “Pratt & Whitney sets aggressive goals with UTC that we continually meet and exceed. We have a committed, smart work force. Our new employees especially have made it clear that they expect the company they work for to be socially and environmentally responsible. In order to attract and retain this critical talent, we must continue to improve upon our current sustainable practices and take them to the next level.”
She added: “The goals are important to us not only because this is our 100th anniversary, but because our vision is to be the aerospace industry sustainability leader.”
Progress thus far
While the 2025 goals were established more recently, P&W has been working on its environmental stewardship for more than 15 years. Cannon says P&W “has actively pursued reductions in the use of materials of concern in our products and our factories that could negatively impact the environment. We successfully executed a technology plan, are developing green alternative materials and are actively pursuing the elimination of materials of concern.”
Among those reductions are 28 percent less greenhouse gas emissions — 215,000 metric tons of CO2 — from its factories since 2000, which equates to taking 41,000 vehicles off the road. The company has reduced its need for water by 64 percent, equating to nearly one billion gallons. While this reduces costs across the board, these reductions are particularly critical in regions of the U.S., and the world, that are struggling to even supply enough clean water to residencies.
P&W has also reduced the amount of non-recycled waste by 57 percent since 2000, which roughly 40 million pounds. The company has also been working to reduce or eliminate any materials that could negatively impact the environment or the well-being of both wildlife and mankind — think of chemicals like lead, hexavalent chromium and cadmium. Cannon says P&W has “successfully executed a technology plan to develop green alternative materials.”
And on the other side of the spectrum, with the production lines already improved rapidly, the company has been producing engines that are far more fuel-efficient and emission-free than the engines on most commercial aircraft today. Its Geared Turbofan technology, which is available on the PurePower engine family, provides up to a 16 percent reduction in fuel burn, plus lower levels of emissions and noise. Cannon says it can cut carbon emissions by 3,000 metric tons annually, which is equivalent to planting nearly 700,000 trees.
How it’s done
The improvements made in the last decade or so are impressive, to say the least, which means they must come from an established process that the company can use to benchmark a variety of processes and products. Cannon says, “To determine the environmental and health impacts associated with the stages of our product's life from cradle to grave (i.e., from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal or recycling), Pratt & Whitney uses a life cycle assessment (LCA) tool.”
That tool helps the company determine that with some of its engines, the greatest environmental impact happens during the product use phase — fuel burn, to be specific. And this was harmful in a number of ways. Not only is fuel a major expenditure for P&W’s customers, but it also creates the most damage to the environment through emissions and greenhouse gases.
From there, the company was able to determine that the extraction/manufacturing process was the second-largest impactful, followed by the maintenance phase. The company could then innovate on each of those stages, and already has been optimizing efficiencies within their production shops and “close-looping” their metals sourcing to lessen environmental impact while reducing costs to the customer. A number of other more forward-thinking innovations have already been implemented, such as engines that can run entirely on sustainable biofuel, along with others still in development, like the use of additive manufacturing to improve “buy-to-fly” ratios.
Cannon says, “This long-term approach insures that we benefit our customers, the environment and the future competitiveness of our company.”
To make these changes, the company has made some significant investments in both the manufacturing processes and the final products. Since 2000, P&W has invested more than $80 million into more than 1,000 environmental-based projects. Cannon argues that investing in greener materials is part of the company’s long-term, proactive investment strategy that also helps products meet anticipated regulations from various bodies around the globe. She says P&W has invested millions more into the health and safety of its employees, as sustainability means little if workers are threatened by harm on the job. On those investments, Cannon says, “Innovation is about continuous improvement.”
On the products side, the company has been working for decades on engines that are more efficient, which reduces the environmental impact of their use and reduces costs to airlines. The cost of R&D and bringing the new family of PurePower® Geared Turbofan™ engines is estimated to be more than $2 billion.
Oftentimes, when propositioned with a corporate sustainability plan to be more sustainable, many in manufacturing might balk at the idea of making capital investments in equipment or processes that might not have a positive return on investment (ROI). It’s a figure that has long driven much of the way manufacturers conduct their business, and to hear a very large, very high-technology company like P&W doing just that might seem inexplicable to some. But Cannon, and the company’s other executives, disagree with the idea that sustainability must have a hard ROI, and also disagree with the assumption that achieving significant return is impossible in the first place.
The company’s president has said: “At Pratt & Whitney, sustainability means integrating environmental and social issues into the business model as part of our commitment to customers, employees and the communities where we live and work. Simply put, we do well by ‘doing good.’ Historically, we have found that ‘doing good’ in our factories adds to our reputation as a sustainability leader, helps us recruit and retain talented employees and typically means a good impact for the bottom line as well.”
To those ends, Cannon says the new PurePower engines were a “bet-the-company proposition” that the higher-ups believed would result in better long-term results in the future, “rather than following the safer path of annual incremental improvements.”
That’s not to say the company isn’t focused on achieving key returns for the investments that it makes — throughout its history, P&W has made major developments in their engines to help usher in a new era in commercial flying. Cannon says the JT3C turbojet engine, hitched onto the Boeing 707, helped usher in the modern “Jet Age,” and the JT9D, the first high bypass ratio turbofan engine, was featured on the Boeing 747 — the first jumbo jet. With each of these being more efficient than previous models, and produce in a more environmentally-friendly way, there’s proof that a company can innovate and care about the environment in which its employees live while making positive returns along the way.
Cannon adds: “As our founder Frederick Rentschler believed, the best airplane can only be designed around the best engine. We are proud to carry on that tradition of innovation.”