Enabling Automation Podcast: S2 E5

We’re excited to bring you our first-ever podcast series, Enabling Automation. This monthly podcast series will bring together industry leaders from across ATS Automation to discuss the latest industry trends, new innovations and more!

In our fifth episode of season 2, host Simon Drexler is joined by Cheryl Gasparet to discuss Building a sustainable high-tech company.

What we discuss:

  • Where should companies begin their sustainability journey?
  • How to determine what is important to your company’s sustainability journey
  • Different perspectives through sustainability objectives

Host: Simon Drexler, ATS Corporation (ATS Products Group)

Simon has been in the automation industry for approximately 15 years in a variety of roles, ranging from application engineering to business leadership, as well as serving several different industries and phases of the automation lifecycle.

Guest: Cheryl Gasparet, ATS Corporation

Cheryl Gasparet is the Corporate Director for Health, Safety and Environment with ATS. She has been with ATS 14 years.

——Full Transcript of Enabling Automation: S2, E5——

SD: Welcome to the Enabling Automation Podcast. This is the fifth episode of our second season, and we’re going to talk about building a sustainable high-tech company. I’m your host, Simon Drexler. I’ve been a member of the automation industry for about 15 years in a variety of roles scaling both innovation and growth of company in both small and large enterprises. The goal of our podcast is to bring experts from across the ATS group of companies to talk about pertinent topics to the industry as a way and a means to help our listeners scale their business using technology and innovation. We’re very fortunate to have a guest who’s an expert in the area of sustainability in Cheryl Gasparet. Cheryl, can you give a quick introduction to our listener base?

CG: Hi, sure I’d be happy to. So thank you for the invitation to be here. My name is Cheryl Gasparet, I’m the corporate director for Health, Safety and Environment with ATS. I’ve been with ATS now for, I guess, 14 years, so it’s been a nice, long journey with the company, but an exciting one and one that’s been a lot of fun along the way.

SD: Right. And one that’s brought you all around the world as well, right?

CG: Yeah, can’t complain about that. It’s been excellent.

SD: Well, why don’t we jump right into the topic of sustainability? And what I’ve seen a lot is it’s very rare that you find anyone who has, you know, takes issue with the idea of sustainability. It’s usually something that fairly top of mind as a discussion point. But there are companies that may not take a lot of action towards sustainability. So as an expert in the field, where would you recommend companies get started?

CG: Well, sustainability really is a huge area. And to your point, it’s one that’s in the news. It’s one that comes up time and again, more in terms of evaluating companies. And it encompasses a lot. You know, sustainability, in its simplest terms, is really about making sure that we have the resources that we need to, you know, as a company to thrive today while ensuring that we have the resources that we’ll need for tomorrow. So, you know, in terms of starting out on that sustainability journey, my view personally is really spend some time boiling down to what’s most important for you as a company in terms of your resources. You know, when you look at sustainability, you hear things about biodiversity, about water conservation, about energy, about people, about, you know, influencing the social good, you know, in the communities where you live and work.

CG: So, you know, my recommendation is to first of all, start with identifying really what’s most important to your company. You know, in formal terms, that gets referred to as a materiality assessment. But really what it comes down to is identifying in that whole broad field of sustainability what’s really going to make the biggest impact on your company, you know, remaining successful today and being successful tomorrow in terms of resources and, you know, identify those points and start there.

SD: I think that’s a great piece of advice for how to get started because there are a number of these topics. And one, we generally mentioned a lot is industry 4.0. And, you know, how do you get started there?  And it can be very difficult in these very broad and overarching topics on how to just get moving because it feels like you’re trying to boil the ocean or trying to eat the elephant in one bite because it’s just such a big and vast topic. And so you mentioned a number of streams in there, you know, energy, biodiversity, social, corporate responsibility. How would somebody start to look at the materiality of that? Another word that I really liked there is, you know, how do you start to see like what’s actually important to you. Is that by industry? Is that by geography?

CG: Well, you know, I can speak to, you know, in our case, you know, when ATS when, when we started down and really formalized our pathway along sustainability, we did a materiality assessment where we actually did a survey and we reached out to internal stakeholders as well as external stakeholders in terms of investors and also our customers to ask them, you know, when they consider ATS and, and you know, the ESG, what, what would be most important for them? You know, what did they think would be most important to hear about, you know, in working with us as a supplier or, you know, as a company that they were looking to invest in.

CG: And we also asked our own employees, you know, working at ATS, what do you think is most important for you, you know, in terms of, you know, how we make sure that we’re successful today and but that we we’re preserving the resources that we need for tomorrow, you know, things like climate change and what are we doing to preserve, you know, resources that would, you know, positively impact when climate change came out.

CG: We heard a lot from internal and external stakeholders about protecting people in terms of health and safety and making sure that we send our employees home safely. We heard, you know, areas in terms of social justice and making sure that that we are, you know, providing an inclusive workspace, you know, for women, for minorities. So I think that’s really, you know, the place to start is think about, you know, what’s most important to you and what are those things that that if you preserve those in the long run are going to make you more successful. And, you know, certainly that lends itself to thinking about sustainability and automation, because the two really are pointed at the same goal.

CG: You know, automation is really about thinking about how do we do things more efficiently, reducing waste, you know, increasing our capacity, but doing that in a way that’s really reliable and that we know that, you know, we’ve got a solution that works for us and we can all, you know, go to bed at night knowing that, you know, we’ve got very stable, you know, and high quality processes. Automation can do that for, you know, in terms of sustainability, not only thinking about how can we produce a product in a way that we minimize the amount of energy that we’re consuming. Sustainability also can come into play with automation. When thinking about waste and reducing waste of resources, whether that’s packaging waste, whether that’s product waste. The more that we have, you know, a very stable, reliable manufacturing system, then that really positively impacts sustainability as well because you’re not having to try and produce 12,000 units in order to get 10,000 that are good. The goal is to have all 12,000 good and reduce the amount of energy, time, resources, raw materials, everything that goes into manufacturing that product. So I think they’re very aligned.

SD: That’s a phenomenal piece of advice and how you’ve tied where technology and innovation, sustainability, we’re driving towards the same end state. It’s really just a different perspective. And it brings more information to the table to flesh out the entire picture of what we’re trying to do as businesses.

CG: One of the really interesting things that I like about what ATS has done in in not only our sustainability journey but in supporting the journey of our customers is when you look at Footprint and some of the things that we’re able to do with increasing manufacturing capability but actually shrinking the footprint that the customer needs in order to do that with. And you know, what’s more sustainable than that? When you think of physical buildings that need to be heated, cooled, we can keep those footprint smaller than isn’t that more sustainable for all of us in terms of the amount that we need to consume in terms of energy is just to have that entity exist.

SD: And talking about a different perspective. So often you hear a company say, we’re growing, we don’t have the space, we don’t have enough floorspace to produce the good that we’re trying to build. The different perspective here is if you can drive efficiency through some of your sustainability objectives, you’re actually helping and driving towards the same objective.

CG: Right. Absolutely. So you know, I’ve seen lots of your really interesting examples from, you know, within ATS where we were, you know, supporting a customer and, you know, and bringing them a new manufacturing solution that actually had a smaller footprint than what they had before and really, you know, enables them to say, be within the same physical space, but do more. And, you know, and I think that really goes a long way towards the sustainability journey when you think about it from an intensity factor of what does it cost from, you know, energy, from all the inputs, from resources, when you’re able to boil it down to that one unit value factoring all those different things in, you know, smaller footprints make a big difference in sustainability.

SD: Absolutely. Have you seen an example, a customer, a partner who has done that exceptionally well? Generally, we’re always trying to build up a return on investment around any of the activities and actions that we’re taking. And sometimes the topic that we’re talking about right now can sort of be put off to the side.  Have you seen a best way where you bring that to the forefront and really build that into the business case?

CG: So, you know, I look at, you know, some of the work that we are doing in IWK is really interesting in that aspect with what they’re doing and now you know, with packaging lines being, you know, faster, being more efficient, being smaller and also their, their capability of really being able to advise their customers on packaging, you know, and what might be, you know, a better or, you know, a not so great way to go in terms of packaging, thinking about sustainability, thinking about packaging costs, thinking about recyclability, there’s lots of examples. And we look into sort of that, you know, consumer products area that, you know, I think we’ve been very successful. Similarly, when I look at the life science business, I like a lot of what we’re doing in the ability to work with our customers and work with their vendors on things like returnable packaging. So when we’re bringing, you know, inputs to the manufacturing process that, you know, we’re looking at doing things like tray handling and returnables that, you know, ultimately are going to have a much longer lifespan than bringing in, you know, raw materials in in packaging that you know, ultimately would become some form of waste.

SD: We had Steve Emery as a guest earlier in the season and we talked about impacts to supply chain for automation. And I think you just touched on one that’s a thread between the two is working with your partners, not necessarily just your customers, but your suppliers as well for how you can work on these types of initiatives. Returnable Dunnage, returnable packaging to drive more efficiency at both facilities.

CG: Right. Yeah, that’s actually one of the areas that I was talking with Steve and a member of his team earlier where we’re looking at doing some piloting with some of our vendors to say, you know, in, in us building automation systems, where could we turn that mirror on ourselves and, and partner with some of our vendors to say, let’s evaluate what sort of packaging, you know, we’re receiving, you know, as part of our orders of components and identify, you know, is there some opportunity there to reduce that? You know, as much as we have really strong processes in place for keeping track of our waste, you know, we do regular waste audits, sorting waste, making sure that wherever we can divert waste to, you know, to recycling or, you know, waste to, you know, a reprocess into energy, we do that. But, you know, it’s recycling and diverting is great. But we also want to make sure that we’re doing our homework just about reducing in the first place. So I think that’s an area where, you know, ATS we can certainly tackle that in a bigger way and working with our customers as well to identify those areas where, you know, with a little bit of study and some work, can we identify some opportunities where, you know, maybe we can reduce the amount of waste incoming in the first place and everybody wins from that, from not only the waste generation but transportation costs.

SD: And I’ve seen with that initiatives like that, the workforce and the culture of the business start to transform as well. And when we’re seeking to eliminate waste inside of our facility, it naturally gravitates over to waste inside of the business process as well.  So a simple example, not bringing packaged goods in for lunch or bringing that that waste home sort of drives a specific approach to a specific series of behaviors that I’ve then seen translate into the production on the shop floor and even into design and things like that, where we are consistently targeting the elimination of waste.

CG: One of the things that I really like about sustainability is watching employees really get excited about it and get involved. And I think there’s so much more awareness around this now than there was 25 or 30 years ago where your employees who are parents are having these discussions with their kids all the time just the other day somebody was saying, yeah, my son is reminding me not to run the water while I’m brushing my teeth, you know, turn the tap on and off. But one of the things I really like is when we start working on some sustainability or the waste audit, it gets people’s attention. They start just contributing ideas not only directly on the process, but it gets people thinking about other areas where, hey, somebody should have a look at this or I’m going to have a look at this. So it’s like a snowball effect that I think once people see that there’s genuine interest and the company is looking for opportunities to improve, then that really opens up the doors to more and more ideas for what could we do differently or better.

SD: I think that’s a great message for those that are listening in that where we started sustainability, very big topic. Find the piece that’s practical or material to you and you’ll see it build and grow because it’s a big topic. So just because it’s a big topic doesn’t mean it needs to be daunting. It provides a substantial amount of opportunity. As long as you get moving.

CG: Right, you have to start. You really have to take it in in small chunks, you know, because you’re right, it is a big topic. And when you read about, you know, some very, very good global initiatives for, you know, for making the world a better place in a more sustainable place, it can feel like a lot. But I think if you try and break it down into I’m going to start, you know, in my building, first of all, just understanding where we are. And one of the most simple things you can do is, is starting by understanding where your energy goes. And so first of all, understanding, you know, how much energy, how much water you’re consuming, but then try and break it down. You know, we’re fortunate that in you know, in many parts of the world, you know, there’s local governments or, you know, regional governments who are very supportive of those sorts of things. So it doesn’t have to be all cash out. So, you know, I would encourage looking for opportunities to get a subsidy or rebate for doing something like an energy audit. So an energy audit goes one step further than looking at your monthly electrical bill. An energy audit, you know, it serves to break down, okay, you’re consuming X kilowatt hours, you know, per month or per year. But really, what in your building is consuming, you know, a certain amount. So looking for, you know, pieces of equipment that might be energy sinks where, you know, they’re consuming, you know, maybe you’re surprised to see how much they’re consuming so that you can start thinking about, okay, is it you know, is it a certain process that really X percentage of my energy is getting funneled into there? When I look at sort of the breakdown of where are things going? You know, it’s not unlike really, you know, managing your household budget where you have to figure out where you’re spending money and then decide, okay, where’s our best opportunity is to try and recover some of that money. And then once you understand, you know, from an energy perspective, where are your big hits in terms of consumption, then you can start doing the work to say, what are the alternatives? What could we do differently? What could we replace, and what might the return on investment might be? So even if there is an initial outlay, how fast will I win that back in terms of overall savings? And a lot of times you find, you know, with aging equipment, you know, the return on investment is pretty respectable and will actually pay you back in the long term. It ends up becoming a, you know, a significant savings.

SD: Wow. In that return on investment in those initial the initial dollars that come out to drive efficiencies, are we normally seeing two, three, four year returns or is it longer than that?

CG: So I would say on average, I would say 3 to 4 year returns, sometimes faster than that. If you’re able to qualify for a regional subsidy because there’s lots of local governments that are very active in, you know, in trying to enable their manufacturing base, you know, to become more sustainable. So, for example, you know, over the past few years we’ve seen lots of subsidies available for simple things like lighting systems, you know, getting away from less efficient lighting systems and going into LEDs. But, you know, a lot of times if you’re looking at, you know, at improving processes, you know, it’s worth, certainly talking to your utility, talking to your local or provincial government about what sort of investment you’re looking to make in your facility and seeing what might qualify there in terms of, you know, a subsidy from an energy savings perspective, there’s  usually lots available.

SD: We’ve tunneled in on energy savings across the facility. And I think that’s a good place because it probably the most practical way to get started. Is there another area inside of the sustainability topic, you mentioned biodiversity, corporate social responsibility, some of the environmental. Is there another area that provides sort of a similar short term view to return on investment time, effort, capital?

CG: So water I think is another important area. And certainly what I look at within ATS, you know, we’ve been able to demonstrate some good success. When you look at food manufacturing, for example, food manufacturing, you know, we above all, we need to make sure that, you know, the consumer’s health is protected, the equipment is clean, you know, we don’t have any problem, problem with product contamination. So those systems typically will have some sort of a wash or clean in place system and, you know, they utilize water. But we’ve been very successful in in bringing new solutions to the table where we can reclaim reuse, reduce the amount of water that’s necessary in order to, you know, to produce the same good outcome. And in terms of, you know, a very hygienic equipment. So water is, you know, is an important area to consider as well.

SD: And very similar line of thinking in that there are many governments around the world that offer subsidy programs to be able to get started on to these types of audits. Those audits drive efficiencies because we’re looking at ways to reduce waste inside of our entire operation. And that’s just another area that can snowball and grow.

CG: I think with any company that’s  looking at really growing their sustainability and thinking about where to start really good to, to start by picking up the phone to your local utility providers to your local government and just asking questions about what’s out there because I think there are often more services available than even we recognize just to help sort of define, you know, where our biggest opportunities are to conserve more.

SD: On this podcast we talk a lot about technology, a lot about innovation, for obvious reasons, we’re talking about automation. What’s become clear to me in this conversation is that if we choose to drive into these types of areas, we’re actually going to drive a better understanding of our technology and our technology solutions as well, because the more we understand them, the more we’re able to drive efficiencies, eliminate waste.

CG: I think, you know, one of the things that I really like about working at ATS is we’ve got a lot of not only very smart but very creative people and sort of the more we understand about the, you know, how we what the needs are and think about the technology solutions that we are like that marries up very nicely in the minds of these smart, creative people we have, you know, in our teams to think of new ways of doing things. And I think that’s really one of the most cool things about working with ATS is, you know, it’s not just the same old, same old out on the shop floor every day. There’s always, you know, new ways of thinking, how do we make it smaller, how do we make it faster, how do we use less water? But, but get to the same output. So there’s always there’s always something in the potential.

SD: Right. And that’s where this sustainability in building a high-tech sustainable company marries so well in the long term view is you have smart people driving high technology companies and if there is a means of bringing in a different perspective that ignites that passion or ignites that creativity towards the end objective in a in a different way, we’re all better off for it.

CG: And I have to say that, you know, I’m very passionate about making sure that I see our people go home safe at night. And, and automation is really one of the things that helps drive that. You know, I see time and again where, you know, as a as a company, we really take not only the safety of our people into consideration as we build the equipment that we do, but we’re really focused on making sure that the end user is safe. And I think that’s, you know, a part of the sustainability story that anybody would have a real hard time arguing against is, you know, we want our people to be safe. You know, we all, whether it’s ATS or any of our customers, you know, we employ good people and they do a great job for us. And we want to make sure they go home to their family at night and I think we can really use automation as a way to help do that and to make sure that, you know, the toughest parts of the job, whether it’s, you know, an ergonomic risk going on hard on someone’s back or shoulder, you know, can we automate that to make that safer, you know, to take that risk factor out? There’s lots that we can do to eliminate the need for manual bending, loading, lifting through automation, which keeps everybody safer at the end of the day.

SD: And that’s a different view on sustainability, too, right? Because we we’ve talked about energy and waste, but at the same time we want the sustainability of our own people. It all starts with people.  And to be able to make sure that they’re a resource that is well positioned for driving the business forward, not only today, but tomorrow, really links into the health and safety portion of this discussion.

CG: Yeah, I mean, you know, we all have to work for a living, but there’s all kinds of places we can work. And you know, personally, I want to work at a place that looks after me. You know, I want to work somewhere where I feel safe. You know, not only you know, that I’m that I’m treated well, that I’m respected, but I’m not worried about getting hurt every day. And we can use automation to help with a lot of that, not only from, you know, ergonomics, as we mentioned, but think about chemical risk. You know, think about your physical hazards like noise, radiation, you know, included in, you know, in what we do is making sure that we’ve got the right protective measures to keep people safe, you know, while they’re working with materials that might be aggressive or radioactive. So we’re thinking about the employees health as well, you know, and how to protect that person, but still enable the job to get done.

SD: Just even touching on those different industries that we have in this short conversation. Yeah, you know, why you’re such an expert in this field is being able to serve that variety of industries, talking about nuclear, talking with automation, food based products. Have you seen across those very diverse companies like what’s the what’s the unifying thread in this in this world?

CG: You know, so I think the unifying thread is, you know, I believe at the end of the day, people want to do the right thing. And I think once you know what the right thing is, it’s very hard not to do it. So that for me is, you know, is the one unifying factor that whether it’s food manufacturing, whether it’s nuclear, or whether it’s transportation, we all want to know that we’re doing the right thing, not only for our employees, but our customers. And I think that’s the tie that binds.

SD: And that’s where it comes back to the leadership of businesses to prioritize and make space for their teams to do the right thing, right to feel that they can contribute to the sustainability.

CG: And raise a flag. If you think, you know, I think we’re off course here then yeah, okay, let’s have that conversation and get back on track.

SD: I think that’s what gets me really excited about this topic in general is when it really boils down to the culture of the business, what leaders prioritize and what we sort of enable our very smart people and our team members to do and sort of get that snowball going. And it gets really exciting when you can do that in a way that not only helps the business, not only helps the community, but helps the world.

CG: So, you know, I love when I go out on the shop floor and I see the equipment and systems that, you know, we’re designing and building for people. You know, A. my first thought is really smart people work here. Like who thought of that? It’s amazing. I love seeing it. But you know, equally I love seeing how when you talk to our employees about what are they doing and, you know, why do it this way, what they’re really engaged. They’re excited. They want to explain to you, you know, why this is better than the old way. And they really you know, my observation is our employees can really connect the dots in terms of we’re doing it this way because. And not- And the answer isn’t, you know, because my boss told me or because the customer wants it, but because they really can understand and they’re invested in the outcome, you know, making it, you know, a better piece of equipment, making it more reliable, less waste. So, you know, it’s nice to see that type of engagement. And I think, honestly, I think that spills over, you know, maybe we’re, you know, getting on the you know, the social part of ESG and sustainability a little bit. But I think it’s sort of that that positive mindset that it sets up where people see that they’re working for a company that, you know, wants to keep them safe. They’re working for, you know, they’re doing something that’s going to help prevent spills or releases or waste going to the environment. And it sort of gets you thinking about out there and the community. And, you know, one of the things that that I really like about ESG is not only that, you know, we’re trying to keep our people safe, where we’re trying to prevent, you know, harm to the environment. But also, you know, we’re looking at our communities, you know, So some of my favorite stories that I read and, you know, an ATS is where we have sponsored a Little League team or, you know, were out stocking shelves at a local food bank or we’re picking up trash along the highway because I think, you know, that’s the kind of company that I want to work for. And they know that I like working with are companies that feel that connection to their community that, you know, they’re there to be in business. You know, they’re there to build a product, to sell a product. But at the same time, they’re also there to be part of the community. And I really like that aspect of sustainability.

SD: I couldn’t agree with you more. So, Cheryl, just as we come to the close of our conversation, if there was a listener out there that’s still a little hesitant. They’ve heard everything that we’ve talked about and they’re still hesitant to invest in sustainability initiatives. What would you say to them to close out our talk today?

CG: So, you know, I would say to them that, you know, yeah, sustainability feels big, but it’s actually made up of small actions taken together to build something bigger. So I would say, you know, start small, start with something that feels manageable, start with something that you see that, you know, this is just a waste of time. You know, where I see people shuffling this waste product or, you know, every time I’m paying the utility bills, I’m in shock at the cost. Start small with something that feels like a pain point and go from there because it’s you know, it’s not about, you know, finding the magic wand that is going to, you know, produce the perfect results overnight. It’s about identifying step by step, you know, incremental improvements that we can make that take us in the right direction. That’s true sustainability.

SD: Cheryl, that is absolutely great advice. Thank you so much for joining us today and providing such a valuable insight to those that are listening.

CG: My pleasure. And I look forward to my invitation to return.

SD: I would be happy to have you back.

CG: Thank you, Simon.

SD: To those listening, thank you so much for joining us today for episode five of the second season of our Enabling Automation podcast, where we touched on sustainability and high tech companies. If you enjoyed the discussion today, and I sincerely hope that you did, please join us next time for episode six, which is how automation and lean transformations complement each other. So a natural progression from today’s conversation where we’ll dive a little bit deeper into the lean approach that takes you to automation.