Sustainable Manufacturing through Modern Automation
“Sustainability” is far from the marketing buzzword that many have come to label it. Sustainability, particularly in manufacturing, is a concept that will shape the future of resource efficiency, waste mitigation, and the reduction of emissions produced during the manufacturing process. Though the shift towards sustainability will be no easy task, it is one that is becoming increasingly necessary in the face of climate change and other socio-economic factors. In this article, we’ll define sustainable manufacturing and explore how manufacturers stand to benefit from adopting the concept.
What is Sustainable Manufacturing?
Though there might be different interpretations on some of the finer points, sustainable manufacturing is widely defined as the manufacture of goods that have been produced through sound, economical processes that limit harmful and negative environmental impacts all while conserving energy and resources. The use of automation and modern technologies in the manufacturing process play very important roles in ensuring sustainable manufacturing is not just an ideology worth striving for, but a practical solution to a global problem. Automated systems, in particular, have been proven to help manufacturers more efficiently utilize resources and reduce the number of defects or runoff products produced, which in turn translates into a smaller environmental footprint.
Benefits of Automated Manufacturing
There are undoubtedly many, many benefits to sustainable manufacturing; some that impact society as a whole and others whose impact is more closely felt in adjacent communities. For the purpose of this article, we’ll aim to limit the benefits discussed to those that most apply to operations, like those detailed below.
A Reduction in Rejected Parts
One of the main selling points of automated equipment is the number of rejected parts that are produced using automated equipment is significantly less than the number produced by human workers. This benefit has been associated with automation for as long as automation has been around, and while fewer rejected parts do in fact mean less waste, there is something else that needs to be factored in before this benefit can be classified as a sustainable manufacturing process. For example, a plant that is fully committed to eliminating all parts waste may not in fact be following a sustainable manufacturing model. That’s because in order to be truly sustainable, the manufacturer must consider the energy and resources that would be required to upgrade all necessary equipment. If the resources and energy expended is greater than the impact of the reduction of rejected parts, the adoption of autonomous equipment in this scenario is not considered sustainable manufacturing. Instead, a manufacturer that is committed to sustainability should only adopt automation if they can reconcile the number of rejected parts saved against the energy and new materials needed for the equipment upgrade.
A Reduction in Raw Material Waste
The same can be said for sustainably reducing raw material waste. Of course, new equipment will always be more energy efficient and more accurate than the equipment that is being replaced, but when it comes to raw material handling, that alone is not enough to be deemed a sustainable change. In order to be sustainable, the new automated equipment must have greater tolerance configurability that reduces the number of raw materials that need to be processed, machined, or cut to produce the item. If, when all of these factors are taken into account, the total gross consumption of material and energy has been reduced from previous levels, a manufacturer has achieved sustainability for that process.
An Increase in Output
Increasing output using automated technology (e.g. robotic processing arms, AI-powered QC/QA systems, automated mixers, etc.) can lead to sustainable manufacturing. For example, robotic arms can reduce production times and facilitate the completion of daily quotas thanks to their highly accurate and repeatable performance. A manufacturer employing a robotic system could consider shortening their hours of operation, thereby reducing overall power consumption without a drop in production. If however a manufacturer uses the production time saved to further increase their production capacity, resource consumption for that manufacturer would undoubtedly increase. While both manufacturers described above employ automation equipment only the former could be said to be adhering to sustainable manufacturing.
Lastly, automation and technology are intrinsically tied to climate emissions. Manufacturers that are committed to sustainability will use advanced control systems and monitoring equipment to reduce pollutants, optimize combustion rates/frequencies mitigating environmental impacts to local air and water sources.
Challenges and Future Outlook
Sustainable manufacturing has many advantages, but clearly, it is not without its challenges. There is a considerable cost associated with investing and maintaining automated systems that can be a significant barrier to operations of all sizes. It can be a difficult task to assess the impacts of the new technology, not only on the bottom line, but if the net change will move the company in the direction of sustainability. Further challenges could present themselves in the form of a depleted workforce where there simply aren’t enough skilled workers to operate and maintain the new equipment.
Economic factors also challenge the idea of sustainable manufacturing. Many manufacturers cite the pressure associated with short-term earnings is counter to sustainability initiatives. And even though the benefits are clear, many companies find it difficult to budget for an investment that may not pay off for several years. For that reason, sustainable initiatives should only ever be considered long term investment strategies. The payoff can be great, but the commitment and patience of stakeholders is a must.
Sustainable Manufacturing is the Path Forward
Sustainable manufacturing as a concept and as a practice will continue to grow and evolve as new applications of automation technologies are developed. While there are many valid reasons for a business to invest in sustainable manufacturing, they must ensure that their business model can support operations until a return on the investment can be realized.
Benefits and challenges aside, sustainable manufacturing is apt to produce many interesting and challenging employment opportunities for those who’ve completed an automation technician program. If you’d like to know more about the roles and responsibilities of an Automation Technician and how you can expand your horizons in this exciting field, contact George Brown College today.