What does the future hold for sustainable manufacturing
We are witnessing an era of unprecedented technological change, with the fourth Industrial Revolution now well underway.
Everywhere we look, the world is changing. Global warming is increasing, populations are rising, and urbanisation continues apace. Resources are becoming scarcer and therefore more expensive, and manufacturers are being put in a position where they may have to compete against each other for resources that are also required to meet the basic needs of society, such as energy and water.
As such, the manufacturing hub of the future will look very different to that of today, supported by rapid advances in technological innovations. German firm Siemens envisages an automated, ‘internet of things’ (IoT)-based manufacturing future – which it refers to as ‘Industry 4.0’ – where systems and products can communicate with each other, enabling products themselves to control their production, thus reducing the need for factory workers on the manual assembly line. Virtual reality (VR), meanwhile, will be utilised by manufacturers to increase productivity and engage staff and customers alike in sustainable production and consumption methods.
Nanotechnology and 3D printing will also be embedded into production processes and supply chains, enabling more flexibility with production and a more efficient use of resources. Advances in 3D printing (also referred to as additive manufacturing) mean it will soon be possible to print bespoke components onsite rather than ordering them and waiting for them to be delivered. This IoT approach could, for example, mean that wearing parts on equipment can be detected automatically by a smart, computerised monitoring system which then prints the parts needed on its connected 3D printer. These printed parts could then be fitted by a service engineer but, as robotics advance, perhaps even this could be done without human input. This may sound like science fiction but it could soon become reality – a team at University of Southern California is currently working on a 3D printer which is capable of building an entire house, including electricity and plumbing, in under 24 hours.
The capture and use of big data will further transform the way manufacturers make products and deliver services, and help to build a greater understanding around the lifecycle of products. GPS satellite technology will enable manufacturers to optimise their performance in real-time and ensure that any problems within the supply chain are identified and fixed immediately. Consumers will also be increasingly able to trace the supply of goods, make better-informed choices and build trust with more sustainable manufacturing brands.
Ironically, whilst addressing some sustainability issues, this boom in technology is leading to other sustainability risks elsewhere. For example, as we become more dependent on rare earth elements (REE) for use in renewable energy solutions and batteries, a 2015 study by the British Geological Survey placed REE at the top of the list of materials at risk of supply chain disruption, with a risk score of 9.5 out of 10.
Beyond technology and innovation, we will also see a shift in the sustainability philosophies of manufacturers large and small. It is clear that manufacturing – and its associated supply chain – will need to be more innovative in what and how products are made, and that the current accepted idea of consumption and the way we measure economic growth will need to be rethought. Therefore, the traditional ‘take-make-use-waste’ model will need to change to adapt to these global megatrends; the move to closed-loop manufacturing processes will lower exposure to supply-chain volatility risks, reduce a reliance on virgin raw materials, and mitigate against energy price volatility.
Indeed, a study by the Ellen McArthur Foundation has suggested that, if this circular economy approach were to be adopted across the EU, an estimated £198bn-£479bn of savings could be realised by 2035. As an extension, we will see a shift towards servitisation models of production and consumption –automotive firm Rolls-Royce’s engine lease “power by the hour” concept and printing company Xerox’s “pay per copy” service are two examples of the service-based approach that some manufacturers are already beginning to take. In fact, keeping stock in warehouses may soon become a thing of the past, as products start to be designed purely for single-purpose customer use, thereby reducing the manufacturing footprint.
Moreover, an increased level of knowledge sharing between manufacturing competitors will help to develop sustainability best-practice across industry. Some firms are already starting to open-source Intellectual Property (IP) rights in a bid to maximise the benefits of sustainable innovation. Electric carmaker Tesla, for instance, has decided that it will join the open-source-software movement and give away its manufacturing patents for free. In this instance, the company viewed the move as an opportunity to strengthen the EV market size and, as a result, Tesla’s own share of the market. Companies will also share the benefits of sustainable manufacturing methods by working together on the production of goods – FMCG companies P&G and Unilever are among the big manufacturing brands that have already stated their intentions to develop new sustainable products through collaboration and co-creation approaches.
Many of the technological advancements noted above can be adopted and implemented by retailers now, putting the sector on a unique platform to lead the low-carbon economy. As this report shows, it is no longer enough to publish glossy CSR reports which state how good a company is. It is time to take action to adapt manufacturing businesses to the changing environment and ultimately add value to the bottom-line. As these green business opportunities continue to push sustainability up the manufacturing agenda, there is a need for the environmental professional to step out from the shadow of health and safety and become more outward-looking and forward-thinking, so that the manufacturing plant of the future is one that puts a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy first.
edie sector summary report: The state of sustainability in manufacturing
This blog is an extract from edie’s latest sector summary report, which outlines the key drivers, challenges and opportunities facing sustainability professionals in Britain’s manufacturing industry.
The 17-page report, produced with support from the EEF, provides readers with an end-to-end overview of the state of sustainability in retail.
Download the report for free here.
James Wyse is National Sustainability Lead at EEF
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