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Interview with Georg Stausberg, CSO Oerlikon Group

How efficiency gains of entire industries open up immense sustainability potential for companies

Interview with Georg Stausberg, CSO Oerlikon Group
Georg Stausberg, as Oerlikon's Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), one of your priorities is to ensure and promote sustainability. Where do you start?

Our goal has always been to promote more efficient and more environmentally friendly operations in every sector and industry in which we operate in worldwide. We do this by, among other things, engineering and optimizing surfaces and developing innovative materials with advantageous properties. The span of applications for our expertise is very broad and ranges from aerospace and manufacturing industries to the energy sector and polymer processing - with a primary focus on the textile industry. This latter segment in particular offers enormous potential for sustainability, which we tap into for our customers in a targeted manner.

How do you go about it?

Textile production processes are a key sphere of activity: as early as 2007 we introduced a veritable quantum leap in this area with our "WINGS technology":  which considerably reduced process complexity, optimized the energy efficiency of components, and consequently increased production efficiency to over 99.8 percent. As a result, our customers could significantly reduce unavoidable production waste and cut energy consumption in yarn production by up to 40 percent over the course of various product generations. To date, this corresponds to a cumulative saving of over ten million tons of CO2 across all factories using Oerlikon equipment, which is equivalent to the annual energy consumption of one million households.

That is indeed a big step, but 2007 was already a long time ago.

Of course, we haven’t rested on our laurels and continue to intensively study the requirements of our customers and the materials that are necessary to produce clothing. This has shown that natural fibers such as cotton can also have a negative "eco-balance". According to the World Resources Institute, around 2,700 liters of water are needed to produce one cotton T-shirt. In today's fast-fashion world, where clean water is an increasingly rare resource, this is not sustainable. Even viscose still requires an avoidable number of resources to produce. With our machine and plant technologies, we are focusing on production solutions specifically for a fiber that has significantly more potential: polyester.

In what way is polyester superior to cotton?

In many respects. On the one hand, this synthetic fiber can fully meet the world's demand for textiles. And on the other hand, polyester can be recycled relatively easily. For this reason we are intensively engaged in finding solutions so that polyester fibers can be used in a circular economy model. The principle is fascinating and will be ready for the market in the next 3 to 5 years. Instead of throwing away used clothes, the fibers will be shredded, reprocessed, and then used for new products – thus  moving from fast fashion to sustainable fashion!

What technological hurdles do you have to overcome to do this?

The crucial point is to return used fibers into the recycling process sorted by type. That is why Oerlikon is currently working on innovations to facilitate recycling. And this is not our only field of action in the textile machinery sector: we are also pursuing the development of new technologies for yarn production from biopolymers, which, together with related materials, are likely to represent the next generation of sustainable textiles in the next five to ten years. However, it is important to note that neither we as technology manufacturers, nor textile producers, nor consumers can bring about the sustainable transformation of the apparel sector on our own - this requires the commitment of all stakeholders. The same applies to all other industries in which we operate. Sustainable solutions are best achieved together.

Besides the polymers and textile industries, where else is Oerlikon committed to sustainability and reducing emissions?

A concrete example, which at the same time shows the enormous impact of our surface solutions, is the aerospace industry: where for decades, we have been working on new innovations as an industry partner. For instance, our coating solutions for aircraft engines ensure that 25 million tons of CO2 are saved in global aviation every year. This corresponds to around 80 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions of all Swiss households. Our surface solutions are also used in car engines, where they reduce friction and also contribute to lower emissions. The energy segment is just as interesting: for Switzerland in particular, hydropower is a key technology for renewable energy supplies. However water turbines are exposed to extreme conditions and our surface solutions reduce wear and thereby increase service life – thus ensuring greater performance, security of supply, and CO2 reduction.

Oerlikon recently published its latest sustainability report.

That's right, with this report we intend to highlight and improve our commitment in this important domain. For decades,  Oerlikon has stood for a very specific value proposition: we support our customers with solutions to reduce their energy, raw material and resource consumption as well as reduce their failure rate. We actually embraced the topic of sustainability long before the term was even coined. Our sustainability report presents all our efforts in this area and makes them both traceable and verifiable. We have also established responsibilities in this regard. In the future, we want to inspire other companies and organizations while also learning from them. Because we are convinced that this is the only way we can continuously improve. This also includes setting binding targets, which are based on the materiality analysis and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations (UN).

Which ones can be implemented?

We have defined a total of nine goals in the three thematic areas "Environment," "Social Affairs" and "Corporate Governance”. In the environmental area, we want to contribute to clean energy and innovative industrial solutions. To this end, as already mentioned, we provide our customers with a range of services and solutions. But as a globally active company with over 180 sites, we also have a responsibility to optimize our own facilities and processes, and minimize our energy consumption. In addition, we want to provide the best possible jobs for our employees, promote their physical and mental health, and guarantee equal opportunities. This is where the social component of sustainability and sustainable corporate governance come into play.

What else is in store for Oerlikon in terms of sustainability in the future?

The topics that are relevant for us today will remain so in the near future. After all, these are highly complex questions whose solution often requires not only a technological but also a cultural change. That is why I would like to emphasize once again: as a company we cannot achieve many of these important objectives alone. Partnerships along the value chain, cross-disciplinary collaborations, and governmental measures and investments are essential to effect change together. At Oerlikon, we are proud of what we have already achieved, but we see these measures not as the finish line, but rather as the beginning of our journey. We have come a long way - and we still have a long way to go as we continue to develop sustainable innovations and take action.

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