Automation and sustainability work together seamlessly in the factories of the near future
When it comes to manufacturing, machines have always helped make the humans’ jobs easier. Rather than completely replacing humans, they’ve freed people up to innovate by taking the menial, time-consuming tasks off their hands. Nowadays, those big ideas are about sustainability, and the machines are helping out there too. Automation is helping factories operate more sustainably and giving the humans a chance to reorient supply chains toward circular economies. Automation and sustainability go hand-in-hand, with one advancing the other.
Vision for the Near Future
Manufacturers oriented toward sustainability aim for carbon neutrality in their operations and supply chains, making climate-friendly products. The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has laid out a vision for manufacturing in 2035 that pairs automation and sustainability seamlessly.
“Intelligent machines are aware of their own state, are able to predict and correct their own actions, and improve their performance through continuous learning,” they wrote in MaintWorld.
This allows for flexibility in products, making the most of recycled materials, and in production, adjusting volume based on demand and other market shifts. Waste is minimized and delivery times are short.
It’s a far cry from the massive disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, so what’s going to change in the next dozen years to make this vision a reality?
“Asset management and maintenance operations will evolve from predictive and prescriptive maintenance towards self-conscious and self-healing machines. Fleets of multi-purpose robots and drones are working with continuous maintenance and inspection tasks,” VTT says.
When humans do have to step in, virtual, augmented, and mixed reality systems let them make immediate, correct decisions. Without as much strain on mind and body, people are left to do what they do best, putting their minds to dreaming up ways to be more efficient.
“Information is shared between different actors in real time, enabling a higher level of supply chain automation and the transition to circular economy business models,” VTT says. “Production capacity is provided on demand to a wide range of customers and material losses and waste have been reduced. The use of sustainable solutions and recyclable materials has increased, and the logistics footprint is smaller.”
Industry 4.0 Enhancements
The technological advancements of Industry 4.0, from advanced analytics and robotics to new forms of human-computer interaction weave automation and sustainability together. IndustryWeek polled a panel of manufacturing experts on the improvements they’re seeing.
“One interesting benefit we see emerging from Industry 4.0 initiatives is the enhanced transparency provided to sustainability programs,” John Lytle, director of manufacturing with global technology research and advisory firm ISG, said. “Reporting frameworks are emerging from the system integrators, leveraging the vast amounts of data these plant systems are generating to enhance and automate reporting.”
Reji Puthenveetil, executive vice president of Industrial Solutions at 3D Systems, said manufacturers are striving for higher levels of sustainability throughout their operations, including additive manufacturing. He cited recyclability of advanced materials, shorter supply chains, energy-efficient factories, and on-demand production as changes ushering in a sustainable future.
As automation tech has advanced, it’s become more accessible to more organizations, lifting sustainability levels industry-wide.
“No-code and easier-to-use robotics will become more commonplace in 2023,” Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, said. “Making robots easier to use, especially with no programming required, allows more companies to automate, especially small and medium-sized companies who are new to automation and don’t always have the in-house capabilities to handle complicated programming and set-up tasks.”
Edge computing especially is improving efficiency by reducing communication lags between AI algorithms and automated machines.
Seeing Into Supply Chains
One tool that can help visualize the importance of the relationship between automation and sustainability is GreenSwapp. The app measures the carbon footprint of supply chains for products. It’s focused on food products, but the technology can be adapted to just about anything.
Users scan the barcode of food items in the app and it instantly brings up information about the item’s carbon footprint, from farming techniques to packaging to the journey it took to get to the end user. It can help shoppers decide which products to buy, but increasingly food companies are using it to track their emissions to devise ways to cut down. GreenSwapp is particularly adept at quantifying Scope 3 emissions, indirect emissions that take place within a value chain, that are especially difficult to track and measure.
The visibility into data like that gives organizations looking to cut carbon emissions and be part of a circular economy know where to start. From there, they can ideate better solutions, and employ more technology to carry out those solutions. Thus, the cycle of automation and sustainability can propagate itself.
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