Sustainability in Manufacturing: How Technology is Helping Companies Go Green

Discover how technology promotes sustainability in manufacturing and enables companies to reduce their environmental impact.
09.06.23 Charles Griffiths

One-fifth of the world’s carbon emissions come from the manufacturing and production industries.

Sustainability is critical in manufacturing, with companies beginning to recognise the crucial need to prioritise environmental responsibility. As the global population grows and environmental concerns escalate, it is evident that traditional manufacturing practices are no longer sustainable.

Technology offers a promising solution to this impending crisis. Innovations are rapidly transforming the manufacturing landscape, providing cutting-edge tools, materials and methods that allow companies to streamline operations, reduce waste, and conserve resources.

This article explores how technology promotes sustainability, enabling businesses to ‘go green’ and meet the pressing demand for environmental responsibility.

Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Sources

Manufacturing is energy-intensive. Processes like heating, cooling, and powering machinery require substantial amounts of energy. If this energy is sourced from fossil fuels, it contributes a massive amount to greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy-efficient technologies and integrating renewable energy sources in manufacturing facilities are fundamental for creating a sustainable industry.

Energy-efficient technologies are designed to provide the same level of output but with lower energy use. Manufacturers can use high-efficiency motors, heat recovery systems, or automation and AI technologies that optimise process efficiency and minimise waste.

Using energy from renewable sources, such as solar, wind, hydro, and bioenergy, is another key to sustainable manufacturing. Every country has access to these resources, if they are willing to invest in the technology to make it cost-effective. In the UK, the cost of consumer solar panels fell 90% between 2000-2021.

The decreasing cost of renewable technologies is making sources like solar and wind increasingly viable. By harnessing these natural and inexhaustible resources, companies reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and decrease their carbon emissions.

One success story is Toyota’s UK factory. In 2011, Toyota worked with British Gas to install one of the UK’s largest solar panel arrays for its Burnaston site. 16,800 panels output more than 4MW of electricity every year.

A second array of 12,680 panels was installed for Toyota’s Deeside engine plant in 2014. The array generates enough power to meet up to 10% of the factory’s electricity needs.

Across the two sites, the generated solar power is enough to build 7,000 vehicles at Burnaston and 22,500 engines at Deeside.

Toyota highlights how energy-efficient technologies and renewable energy sources can maintain productivity in the manufacturing sector while reducing its environmental impact.

As technology continues to improve and the costs continue to fall, more companies will follow suit, cementing sustainability as a cornerstone of modern manufacturing.

Smart Manufacturing and Automation

Efficiency drives success in manufacturing. Technology like the Internet of Things (IoT), AI and big data analytics help manufacturers streamline their operations, minimise waste and optimise resource use. Also known as Industry 4.0, automation and technology help manufacturers become more sustainable.

The IoT is an integral part of smart manufacturing. By connecting machines, devices, and people, IoT devices collect huge amounts of data that manufacturers can use to optimise their operations. Proactive monitoring of equipment using sensors and machine learning reduces the risk of equipment failure and ensures time and resources aren’t wasted fixing unplanned downtime.

Siemens is Europe’s largest industrial manufacturer, producing technology for a range of industries like power generation and healthcare. Its Monterrey plant identified the need for digitisation to monitor overall equipment efficiency (OEE).

In 2017, the manufacturer decided to host its propriety IoT operating system MindSphere on Amazon Web Services. By hosting in the cloud, Siemens could save time by instantly accessing the required computing resources its factories needed to build an industrial IoT system.

In Monterrey, the team was able to build its MindSphere IoT system in less than 8 weeks. Using the real-time data provided by the system, the plant initially targeted a 60% OEE, with an eventual target of 85%.

A higher OEE means more efficient processes and less waste, highlighting the importance of smart manufacturing in creating a more sustainable manufacturing industry.

Automation, another cornerstone of smart manufacturing, enables manufacturers to minimise waste and optimise resource utilisation. By automating repetitive and precise tasks, companies can reduce material waste, improve accuracy, and decrease energy usage. Automation enables more efficient use of machinery, reducing idle times and saving energy.

Supply Chain Transparency and Collaboration

The supply chain plays an important role in the quest for sustainable manufacturing. Green transport, sourcing materials from responsible suppliers, and implementing technologies for traceability and transparency reduce environmental impact and ensure accountability throughout the chain.

Technological innovations, particularly AI, have greatly enhanced supply chain transparency. AI and machine learning algorithms can analyse vast amounts of data to identify areas of inefficiency or waste.

Sustainable sourcing requires collaboration with suppliers and stakeholders. By working together, companies can encourage environmentally friendly practices, share knowledge and resources, and collectively strive for sustainability goals. This could involve sourcing materials from certified sustainable suppliers, co-developing greener products, or partnering with recycling firms to manage waste.

For instance, Apple has set the ambitious target of building its products exclusively using recycled and renewable materials. Apple wishes to end its reliance on mining for materials like tungsten, cobalt and lithium, which has profound environmental impacts.

While these processes are still required, the tech giant’s suppliers are required to source primary minerals responsibly. Suppliers must follow strict human right and environmental standards that align with international frameworks.

Challenges to Sustainability

The move to sustainability won’t be quick, and nor will it be cheap. Companies like Apple can afford to make ambitious promises for carbon neutrality and recycling targets; they have the capital to invest, whereas smaller manufacturers may not have the same available resources.

Significant upfront cost, combined with extensive training to upskill staff, may deter manufacturers even if there are long-term gains.

Furthermore, the global nature of many supply chains can make it difficult to maintain sustainability standards at every level. Cultural differences and differing regulatory standards in different countries further compound this challenge.

Therefore, international regulatory frameworks will play a significant role towards ensuring sustainability. Governments recognise the need for international cooperation for trade and supply – the UK set out its international regulatory co-operation (IRC) strategy in 2022.

Government support through policy will also help the industry become greener. Subsidies for green technologies or tax breaks for sustainable practices help offset the initial transition costs and encourage more businesses to adopt sustainable practices. For instance, the UK offers capital allowance on energy-efficient items, reducing the amount of tax a business pays.

Technology Will Be The Driving Force For Sustainability in Manufacturing

Despite the challenges, emerging technologies continue to shape the future of sustainable manufacturing. AI, the IoT and renewable energy technologies are making sustainable manufacturing more achievable and cost-effective. Predictive analytics optimises energy use in manufacturing processes, while improvements in renewable energy technologies reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

The path towards a greener manufacturing industry is long, but the benefits for businesses, consumers, and the planet make it worthwhile. With commitment, collaboration, and innovation, the manufacturing industry can become a powerful force for sustainability.

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