How technology can help manufacturing to become sustainable

Factory cut out of green hedging

As more customers, governments and businesses look to reduce their environmental impact, sustainable manufacturing is becoming a higher priority.

Whether it’s reducing the amount of waste going to landfill, minimizing the release of carbon emissions into the atmosphere or sourcing materials more sustainably, there are a variety of areas manufacturers need to focus on to become greener.

Similarly, manufacturing businesses are also feeling the influence of Industry 4.0 and advanced technologies such as Big Data, artificial intelligence and machine learning. These tools and processes are bringing great benefits to manufacturers, such as increasing their operational efficiency, automating the supply chain and improving product quality. Not only that, but this technology can help manufacturers attain their sustainability goals.

This article will explain which green manufacturing technologies companies can use to meet their sustainability objectives and what benefits these technologies are bringing to the wider world:

Why do manufacturers need to become more sustainable?

The environmental impact of manufacturing is wide reaching. The IPCC recently found that manufacturers produce around 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the World Bank has estimated that global industry produces 18 times more waste than households. Energy efficiency in manufacturing is also a concern, as the sector consumes 54% of the world’s energy – more than any other globally.

With more people becoming aware of their environmental impact, they’re taking action to reduce it as much as possible. Indeed, a PwC survey in 2021 found that 52% of executive leaders believed customers’ desires to make more sustainable choices was having the biggest impact on their operations. Similarly, international groups and individual governments are setting out agreements and legislation to ensure manufacturers operate more sustainably.

So, to function effectively and get their business ready for the future, manufacturers need to make environmental initiatives a key part of their strategy.

What aspects of their operations do manufacturers need to consider?

Throughout the supply chain and production cycle, there are a few key areas manufacturers need to focus on to make their operations more sustainable:

  • Energy usage: optimizing the use of electricity and sourcing renewable energy should be prioritized by manufacturers. This will help to reduce operational costs and maintain businesses’ energy security far into the future.
  • Material sourcing: synthetic materials that consume large amounts of oil or natural fibers use huge amounts of the earth’s resources to produce. Manufacturers will, instead, need to ensure these products are made from recycled materials or come from sustainable sources to keep supply chains ‘green’ and help customers meet their environmental goals.
  • Waste management: from toxic substances to contaminated water and plastic, industry produces significant amounts of landfill waste. This waste threatens both human and ecological health, therefore its important manufacturers work hard to become part of the circular economy to minimize their impact.
  • Carbon emissions: in each stage of the supply chain, production process and during distribution, manufacturers should work to minimize their greenhouse gases as much as possible. This is particularly important as countries work to achieve net zero targets
Green circular economy

However, to ensure long-term success for their business, manufacturers must operate both sustainably and efficiently. Advanced technologies and Industry 4.0 strategies are increasingly becoming the answer to manufacturers looking to achieve their sustainability goals.

Which technologies can help to improve sustainability for manufacturers?

For all of these operational changes to occur and have a positive effect on a manufacturer’s carbon footprint and impact, having access to data and using it effectively is imperative.

Whether it is data mining, AI, smart tech or automation, all of them provide greater connectivity, providing information that can monitor usage and suggest solutions.

With many manufacturers setting out sustainable targets as part of their long-term business strategies, they’re looking to invest in technologies that can help them reduce their environmental impact and build resilience for the future.

Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software

ERP systems are integrated into every major business system. From accounts to procurement, operations and beyond, they collect, analyze and actively share data between each aspect of a manufacturer’s business. This gives a complete overview of business functions, enabling manufacturers to reach the strictest compliance standards and ensure end-to-end efficiency.

Man using laptop inside a factory

Plus, by giving executives a complete picture of the business’s energy and material consumption, ERPs enable them to identify potential areas where waste could be reduced, or efficiency could be improved. These systems also enable more accurate estimates of businesses’ carbon impact and pinpoint where they can work to minimize their output of greenhouse gases.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

The efficiency gains AI can help achieve, particularly in production, have been widely documented. This is also the case when it comes to reducing manufacturers’ environmental impact. Whether they’re integrated into robotics, machine learning or data systems, AI technologies have been predicted to help achieve 79% of manufacturers’ sustainable development goals.

Integrating AI into the production process also has business benefits for manufacturers and their customers. By collecting, analyzing and implementing data findings, AI-equipped machines can produce higher quality products with less defects and minimize operational downtime caused by inefficient equipment. This saves materials and energy, reduces waste and delivers better products to customers on time.

Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)

By having a whole production system equipped with intelligent technologies, manufacturers can operate with greater efficiency, safety and less downtime. A recent survey by ABB also found that 94% of manufacturers agreed integrating IIoT systems helped them to improve their overall sustainability.

AI of cars being built in factory

Connecting machines together helps to monitor their performance and fix any inefficiencies quickly or pre-emptively across the whole supply chain, preventing downtime and energy or material wastage. Sensors can also be used to track the release of carbon emissions from factories, providing complete visibility and a traceable metric they can actively reduce and report to meet strict compliance rules.

Similarly, sensors can track the path of any waste, enhancing a manufacturer’s traceability and giving them a better understanding of their waste management systems. In short, connecting intelligent machines together gives businesses data and helpful insights which they can action to meet compliance standards and make their operations or supply chain more sustainable.

Big data

Whether it’s monitoring your supply chain, predicting customer demand, planning operational capacity or increasing knowledge of environmental impact, big data systems can benefit business’ sustainability and productivity in a range of ways.

There is a staggering range of data that can be collected, with Forbes estimating that “a single production line at a modern manufacturing plant… might consist of 2,000 different pieces of equipment, each with 100-200 sensors that collect data every second”.

This wealth of data holds plenty of possibilities for manufacturers, from greater accuracy in emissions reporting to the agile or automatic identification and resolution of efficiency issues. However, it’s worth noting that data centers do consume huge amounts of energy, making it key for manufacturers to source partners with strong environmental credentials when developing big data systems.

Smart materials

From the way they’re sourced and produced to the method of disposal, the consumption of materials is a key area of focus for manufacturers. Indeed, as customers, stakeholders and partners become more informed about their choices and the benefits of a circular economy, they’ll demand greater visibility over the entire supply chain, including materials.

Alongside working closely with suppliers on sustainable sourcing, some manufacturers are developing new materials that are less impactful on the environment’s resources and habitats. For example, the development of bioplastics means natural products are used rather than oil to create materials that can degrade safely in soil much more quickly than standard plastics.

Plus, as materials innovation attracts greater investment, the technologies will improve in quality and performance as well as becoming more affordable to manufacturers and consumers.

What other benefits can these technologies bring to manufacturers?

These technologies aren’t just helping manufacturers to become more sustainable by reducing emissions, waste and the consumption of environmental resources, they’re bringing a variety of competitive advantages too, including:

  • Increased productivity: from additive manufacturing technologies to equipping each machine with AI, integrating advanced technologies into a manufacturer’s operations can help to improve their efficiency, deliver better products and make continuous improvements to their business.
  • Better worker safety: robotics, automated processes and predictive maintenance minimizes the amount of dangerous contact human workers need to have with machines in the production line. By controlling, monitoring and fixing any problems remotely, workers can take on more complex roles and stay safer in the factory, enhancing their overall wellbeing.
  • Greater resilience: the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated exactly how integrating technologies successfully can help businesses become more agile and competitive in challenging circumstances. An IBM survey found that leaders from 12 industries who had adopted advanced technology outperformed their competitors in terms of revenue by 16%.
  • Enhanced profitability: as previously mentioned, more eco-conscious customers, stakeholders and partners will be making sustainability their priority when deciding what products to invest in. Plus, legislations and compliance standards for manufacturers will become stricter, a challenge which technologies are helping them to solve.
Man in hard hat controlling cobot

Yet, despite these advantages, integrating technologies into a manufacturing business isn’t without its challenges. From committing to the financial investment these technologies require to getting buy in from employees and stakeholders to creating an effective integration plan. Any manufacturer looking to introduce technologies to improve their sustainability needs to manage expectations and set out a clear strategy to reach their environmental objectives.

What innovation is Essentra Components deploying?

By setting ambitious sustainability targets and integrating them into our business plans, Essentra Components has been able to make significant investments into technologies that reduce environmental impact and enhance performance, including:

  • Investing in a machine replacement program that will switch all end-of-life and inefficient hydraulic machinery with electric injection molding machines by 2031.
  • Researching and developing the use of recycled content in the LDPE components range. This means there is at least 50% recycled material in these components and in some ranges, up to 98%.
  • Integrating predictive maintenance technologies and processes into all Essentra Components production lines so energy and materials are used as efficiently as possible.
  • Introducing software systems that can track operational efficiency, increase visibility and help to achieve sustainable objectives and projects such as the energy reduction program.
  • Adding advanced technologies into production lines, including robotics and heat jackets, to increase efficiency, enhance worker safety and optimize energy and material usage, as well as benefiting customers with higher quality products.

In short, by introducing new processes and technologies into the business, Essentra Components isn’t just working to improve its sustainability but enhance its productivity, profitability and resilience ready for the future.