Mercury Marine using data in new ways while pushing sustainability

Mercury Marine, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of boat parts and engines, is using data in new ways while pushing environmental sustainability.

“There’s the people, the planet, and the profit — and we believe in those three P’s,” said Scott Louks, sustainability and facilities project manager for Mercury Marine.

This $2.3 billion division of the Brunswick Corporation specializes in outboard marine motors, shipping products from its Fond du Lac headquarters to “virtually every country around the world,” according to Chris Drees, (pictured here) the company’s vice president of global operations. He says the company employs about 3,600 there.

“We’re unlike a lot of other manufacturers, because we’re very vertically integrated,” Drees says.

As he explains, the company’s engine blocks start from recycled aluminum, which is blended on site by metallurgists. It’s then smelted and high-pressure die-casted in another part of the facility.

“We have massive machining centers across our facility,” Drees told “Within our casting process, if you think about trying to drive out waste from that whole cycle, the more information and data we can collect to better utilize in our manufacturing process, the better.”

At many points in this process, data is collected by sensors and closely examined. The company’s systems engineers have written custom algorithms that can parse out anomalies in the process, identifying even the smallest issues.

Though machines and systems in many industries are getting connected to the internet for all sorts of reasons, Drees notes this adoption has been slower in the manufacturing space.

“Because we’re dealing with big assets — we have machining centers, we have huge presses that didn’t really have that capability — now with the new equipment, we’re starting to drive it,” Drees said.

The optimization resulting from this continual tweaking has led to less waste, he added.

“We can drive double-digit reductions in scrap, improve cycle times — really become more efficient,” he said.

The company’s efforts to become more sustainable were refocused in 2010, says Louks, who also holds a position on the board of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council.

Mercury Marine had been on the verge of leaving Wisconsin for Oklahoma around that time, until the state struck a deal to keep the company.

Louks notes the company had been doing “a number of sustainable, really good forward practices” before that, but that’s when the company organized everything related to sustainability under one umbrella.

He says Mercury began to consider “how do we get our message out to employees, out to the community, to investors.”

Louks notes sustainability is increasingly being recognized as “a critical concept” in business.

To respond to this trend on the consumer side, Mercury has designed new technology in products for greater efficiency and few emissions. One such innovation, called active trim, improves fuel efficiency by letting the computer control the motor elevation based on boat speed and engine revolutions per minute.

“It ranges, but you can get up to 40 percent fuel efficiency on that,” Louks said.

The company’s 2017 report on sustainability shows Mercury is on track to meet its 2019 goal of reduced energy consumption by 45 percent from baseline 2005 levels.

The report lists numerous accomplishments in recycling, manufacturing waste, and water conservation — including upgrading systems for water cooling and power output measurement.

Mercury’s product development and engineering facility in Fond du Lac was able to reduce annual water use by 28 million gallons thanks to a closed-loop water supply system.

“Society kind of dictated that companies need to be doing this,” Louks said.

Looking ahead to 2018, Drees says the biggest challenge will be to meet the rising demand for the company’s products.

“We can’t focus on one thing — we have to do everything well, or else it doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s tough to produce the best engine in the world if we don’t have the best processes and the best people — so that’s what we have to do, from our standpoint, to get better in operations.”

See Mercury’s 2017 Sustainability Report:

–By Alex Moe