Solving the Manufacturing Dilemma

By Zeydi Gutierrez, AB&I Foundry

Being a manufacturer in the Bay Area today is an immense challenge. While many communities want the economic benefits and blue-collar jobs that come with manufacturing, the cost of operating a plant here is significant. From real estate to taxes to meeting stringent environmental regulations, it’s not easy to keep local manufacturing alive.

Yet, AB&I Foundry is proof that with the right business – and the willingness to invest in safety and sustainability – we can keep manufacturing not just surviving in the region, but thriving.

We like to call ourselves the ultimate recycler. AB&I takes as much as 75,000 tons of scrap iron and steel each year and recycles it into durable, high-quality cast-iron waste pipe – about 3,000 miles of pipe a year.

Almost all the scrap we use comes from California, and more than half comes from within 500 miles of our plant in East Oakland, the community that’s been our home since we were founded more than 100 years ago. That local sourcing eliminates the greenhouse gas emissions that would otherwise be generated by trucking the scrap to distant factories or shipping it overseas.
The pipes and fittings we make also are used locally in iconic commercial, residential and public structures around the Bay, from the Oakland Coliseum to the new Chase Center and the Salesforce Tower (where 70 miles of our pipes are installed).

Our manufacturing operation provides well-paid, union jobs for over 200 people, a third of whom live in Oakland. Our workforce is almost as home-grown as our company; many of our team members come from families who have worked here for decades, in some cases for five generations. With a payroll of $11.3 million a year, along with taxes and spending on local businesses and suppliers, we generate about $60 million in economic activity every year in and around Oakland.

Yet, to meet the challenges of manufacturing in this region, where people are steadfast in their commitment to sustainability, we have to do more than just make a great product with great people. We need to be a great neighbor by embracing and investing in sustainable operations, both in technology and in a staff of engineers dedicated to that task.

As a maker of recycled products, it’s natural for us to look at recycling within our own processes as well. We changed how we pre-heat air at the input stage to use heat recovered at various points in the melting and casting process, rather than burning natural gas. We still get the 1,000-degree temperatures we need, but without burning of at least $60,000 worth of gas each month. Similarly, we’ve engineered our cooling water systems to be self-contained, eliminating any discharge; the only loss is to evaporation, reducing our water use by one million gallons a day.

To ensure the safety of our team members and protect the air in the surrounding community, we’ve invested in the past 15 years in a series of “bag houses” that capture and filter particulates and emissions from the manufacturing exhaust. As a result, our plant far exceeds the most stringent regulatory standards.

Even our “waste” isn’t wasted: Most of the waste generated in our processes is non-hazardous and we have worked with a local landfill that uses this material as alternative daily cover (ADC) at their facility. By using a waste material for this purpose in lieu of clean dirt which might have to be hauled in as well, the landfill airspace is maximized.

None of this is easy or inexpensive. But thriving in manufacturing in the Bay Area requires that we recognize this responsibility as a good corporate citizen and neighbor. As we continue to invest in sustainability that benefits the environment in East Oakland and surrounding neighborhoods, we make it possible to keep manufacturing and its economic benefits working in Oakland.

About the Author:

Zeydi Gutierrez is the Public Affairs Strategic Director for AB&I Foundry, which has been manufacturing cast iron soil pipe and fittings for drain, waste, and vent systems in Oakland for more than 100 years. She has served on several boards, including the Association of Manufacturers Bay Area, the California Metal Coalition, and was recently named Chair of the Oakland Workforce Development Board.