How Technology Supports Sustainability in Manufacturing & Distribution
“Significant change is afoot [in manufacturing] and it necessitates bigger thinking. Those unprepared may find themselves being left behind.”- 2021 Deloitte report, Sustainable Manufacturing: From Vision to Action
Sustainability is gaining hold in the manufacturing industry. Customers are looking for products and partners who follow eco-friendly practices, adopt green policies, and share a commitment to sustainability.
Another critical reason for manufacturers to undertake initiatives in sustainability and include them as a key goal in their strategy and operation is substantial financial benefits and worldwide competitiveness.
Related Reading: 6 Technologies Driving Sustainability in 2022
However, implementing sustainable manufacturing production comes with issues and challenges that could be overcome by adopting modern technologies. Product development merged with digital technologies helps to reap the true potential of sustainable manufacturing and achieve environmental conservation goals.
What is Sustainable Manufacturing?
Sustainable manufacturing is a process of creating products with minimal negative environmental impact. It is a strategic method to “meet the needs of the present, without compromising the capability of the future generation to meet theirs.”1 The prime objective of sustainable manufacturing is to conserve energy and natural resources while minimizing waste.
The manufacturing industry contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions and uses water and energy excessively. Hence it is also the most targeted industry in sense of sustainability.
Smart, efficient, and low-impact manufacturing practices also give a sustainable leg up to the manufacturer during the supplier evaluation process as it distinguishes them from the rest and positions them to stay ahead of the competition.
Virtually all of the world’s largest companies now issue a sustainability report and set goals; more than 2,000 companies have set a science-based carbon target, and about one-third of Europe’s largest public companies have pledged to reach net zero by 2050.2
Technology Supporting Sustainability in Manufacturing & Distribution
So what’s making sustainability so easy to adopt? The straightforward answer – Modern technologies. Here we have put together a list of modern technologies that are making manufacturing processes sustainable.
- Additive Manufacturing
Subtractive manufacturing, also called traditional manufacturing, includes drilling, cutting, and grinding processes. These processes generate a large amount of waste in form of chips and scraps affecting economic and environmental sustainability. Whereas, additive manufacturing represents a more sustainable means of production.
Additive manufacturing eliminates the use of excess materials and unnecessary waste from the outset through 3D printing. It not only saves time but also provides end-of-product-life-cycle solutions enabling more environmentally benign practices. Additive manufacturing also allows for resources efficient material – via recycling.
According to Eduard Hryha, researcher and project manager for the new Centre for Additive Manufacture – Metal (CAM2) at the Chalmer’s University of Technology in Sweden – Additive manufacturing might play a significant role In the long term to reach the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).3
To quote him, “To reach the climate goals, we must make significant changes to the way we manufacture products and additive manufacturing is one of those revolutionary methods.”
- Big Data and Digital Twins
Big data has already become a powerful tool for monitoring and controlling sustainable development in the manufacturing industry. It helps to understand trends, preferences, and correlations on the larger data sets for effective decision-making.
Especially in smart factories where data is captured from the sensors during the production activities and can be analyzed for predictive maintenance operations. Other benefits that big data offers are process optimization, real-time monitoring, production efficiency, and management automation.
According to the ‘Digital Twins: Adding Intelligence to the Real World’ report from the Capgemini Research Institute, 60% of organizations across major sectors are leaning on digital twins to fulfill their sustainability agenda.4
Digital twins help to improve product design and manufacturing by serving as a real-time digital counterpart of physical entities in a system. It enables product designers to embed and follow circular economy principles throughout each stage of design.
- Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
AI and Machine Learning generate a lot of opportunities for sustainable manufacturing. It creates an efficient and transparent supply chain which significantly decreases operational friction. It also evaluates the component images in ongoing production lines and instantly identifies even the slightest deviation from the standards in real-time.
According to Deloitte’s survey on AI adoption in manufacturing, 93 percent of companies believe AI will be a pivotal technology to drive growth and innovation in the sector.5 AI continually learns and suggests optimal operation parameters for production runs, indicating how much you could save in energy and carbon consumption. It will also recommend adjustments to help you achieve the highest efficiency level.
AI-enabled computer vision systems and smart cameras can also help improve the safety of workers. It can inspect if the workers are wearing safety equipment and complying with safety rules improving the social sustainability of the manufacturing business.
- Internet of Things (IoT)
The Internet of things (IoT) plays an important role as a key enabler for sustainable manufacturing. Deployment of a large number of sensors and advanced controls makes manufacturing cost-effective and helps to achieve extensive environmental goals.
Related Reading: How is Industrial IoT Making Manufacturing Safe?
Manufacturers can collect a more significant amount of data and convert them into valuable business information to improve product quality, and increase production efficiency and resource utilization.
One of the findings revealed that 94% of key decision-makers across 12 industrial segments agree that Industrial IoT can improve overall sustainability. Moreover, 72% are looking to increase spending on this technology due to its impact on sustainability.6
IoT-based solutions also help manufacturers optimize their entire energy system. Through real-time data collection and data processing, manufacturers will be able to quickly identify irregularities and patterns and take suitable measures right away.
- Cloud Computing and Manufacturing
As manufacturing becomes more integrated and complex, cloud computing will be considered a key enabler of sustainable manufacturing. It offers advantages like the computational power required to apply ML, AI approaches, and other smart technologies in Industry 4.0.
Free Download: Cloud and Infrastructure infographic
Manufacturers can make more intelligent decisions to adopt the most sustainable and robust manufacturing route using cloud technologies. It also helps to power core capabilities like automation to reduce production time, avoid over or underproduction and take measures to reduce energy consumption.
- Augmented and Virtual Reality
Manufacturers looking to embrace sustainability should invest in Augmented Reality technology. It has made the training process a lot easier and faster, improved the operator’s performance, and enhanced the throughput.
AR can also provide instructions to maintain and change machine setup for assembly processes, decreasing the amount of time it takes to understand instructions and improving workflow and productivity.
Using real-time visuals, manufacturers can make products come to life. Visualized workflows make processes much clearer to troubleshoot problems, fix them and prevent them from happening in the future.
- Blockchain Technology
In the traditional manufacturing supply chain, the information is usually managed and stored in a centralized location which increases the risk of losing data. The whole system could become vulnerable to errors or attacks, reducing trust between supply chain parties. This approach also affects reliability and transparency in the supply chain processes.
The blockchain in the manufacturing market is expected to reach $778.05 million in 2026. Blockchain overcomes these barriers by building a reliable, transparent, traceable, and secure supply chain.7 This improves trust between stakeholders, reduces transaction costs, optimizes manufacturing processes, and minimizes production time.
- Robotic Process Automation
RPA and sustainability are aligned in the manufacturing sector. It is the perfect technology companion to accelerate sustainability, eliminate waste and bolster a company’s bottom line. Though robots have been helping manufacturers to streamline assembly lines, they still struggle effectively manage operational or backend processes.
Free Download: Robotic Process Automation Infographic
RPA analyzes existing manufacturing processes for opportunities to improve efficiency and accuracy. It offers companies improved agility in operations across the entire value chain. It helps them to operate time-intensive processes like procurement, inventory management, and payment processing while strategizing cost reduction, innovating business operations, and keeping up with regulations.
Companies implementing RPA for manufacturing activities experience an increase in accuracy, flexibility, and productivity decreasing energy consumption, waste, and workplace injury. Surveys show that 43% of manufacturers already use robotic process automation, while a further 43% plan to deploy RPA initiatives.8
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