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Tech revolution tests manufacturers’ green credentials

Professor Steve Evans

Head of the IfM’s Centre for Industrial Sustainability

Manufacturers have always focussed on the art of reducing costs and improving quality, and their next challenge is how to be sustainable as well as profitable.

The fourth industrial revolution will make manufacturers smarter and more efficient, but there is also pressure on them to become more sustainable.

As firms make ambitious investment decisions and adopt new technology to transform their processes they must find new ways to reduce their use of energy, water, raw materials and to cut the amount of waste they produce.

Professor Steve Evans, Head of University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing’s (IfM) Centre for Industrial Sustainability, says a sector-wide sustainability strategy is essential to ensure goods are produced that consumers and businesses really value and that take into account their individual needs.

“For example, if a car manufacturer can use data to discover how someone drives their current vehicle, then less energy could be used when building their next one,” he says. “If you know how a car has been driven and looked after, and whether someone has had any crashes, you can decide which parts could be recycled.”

Evans says sustainable organisations can be very profitable but he warns that firms will not make money in future without being sustainable. Manufacturers have worked out how to cut costs and improve their products, he says, but their challenge today is how to take less from the earth but still deliver value. He wants to see the wider adoption of ecoefficiency and ecotechnology in factories.

Manufacturers could be working together

Evans has more than 20 years of academic experience plus 12 years working in industry and he wants manufacturers to work more collaboratively.

“In a car factory, a manufacturer can dissemble a competitor’s product and calculate how much labour was needed to produce it, but it is much harder to work out how much energy was used,” he says.

“New analytics technology will help everyone, if all manufacturers are prepared to provide anonymous data around their processes to improve overall energy consumption.”

Evans also expects more investment in virtual and augmented reality to assist with factory floor planning to map the flow of energy and make it easier to manage supply and demand so that less energy is wasted.

Resource risks and business rewards

With demand for finished goods rising globally, but the supply of some raw materials becoming scarcer, resource productivity and scheduling will become priority areas for manufacturers.

The IfM supported the sustainability report ‘Lean and clean: building manufacturing excellence in the UK,’ published in October by the independent think tank, Green Alliance, which calls for a more resource-efficient manufacturing strategy.

The study claims that, while some firms have cut energy use by about 50 per cent in the past decade, the reduction for most producers has been between 10-15 per cent. It seems many companies struggle to identify and quantify inefficiencies and vulnerabilities in their operations.

“Many firms are not aware of the resource risks they face or the opportunities for savings that would make them a business priority,” says Evans. “The government’s industrial strategy should provide foresight and benchmarking for UK manufacturers to realise the untapped potential of resource efficiency and help build long term manufacturing competitiveness.”

The Green Alliance estimates that, by improving resource efficiency, performance in manufacturing could add £10bn to firms’ profits.

‘Give products their own digital passport’

Evans would also like to see every product manufactured given its own digital passport that details exactly which materials it is made from and which chemicals have been used to produce it. “This information will reveal whether you can return something to its original state or recycle it in other ways.”

New technology could also be one solution to the UK’s current productivity problem. According the Office for National Statistics, the country’s output per hour fell 0.1 per cent between March and June 2017.

“You might see someone standing around in a factory or looking busy, but do you know if they are actually adding value?” says Evans. “You can use digital technology to assess, for instance, if tools or equipment are in the wrong place and that, if they were relocated to different parts of the factory, productivity would improve.

Communicating benefits to consumers and businesses

However, there are barriers to the sustainability ideas being suggested by the IfM and the Green Alliance. Many consumers and businesses remain reluctant to share data while real concerns exist about future cyber security threats around the Internet of Things.

“Industry must work as one to ensure robust data security, while there is a societal challenge for manufacturing to convince consumers there are real benefits to them if production and supply chain processes do become more sustainable.”

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