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Automation and sustainability go hand in hand, which many engineers have discovered. When people can automate a process, the potential exists to reduce unnecessary steps, resource waste and other detrimental outcomes that can reduce sustainability. Discover some compelling strategies engineers can use to harness automation and get green results.
1. Investigate How to Automate Existing Processes
One way engineers can get impressive outcomes with automation is to evaluate how they might apply automation to well-established tools, products or processes in their fields. If fellow engineers know those already work well, they should be more open to exploring automation.
Digital twins are excellent examples of what’s possible. Engineers already use those in various ways to determine the likely effects of particular courses of action before applying them in real life. For example, the engineering team developing a new product may use a digital twin to investigate the impact of certain features before adding them to a prototype.
At MIT, engineers developed a digital twin with a prescriptive feature. They envisioned using it for applications such as fleets of delivery drones or wind farms. For example, the digital twin could advise of the best course of action to take if a drone collided with something en route and got damaged.
However, until recently, engineers had yet to determine how to automate the creation of digital twins. A European Union-funded project called AUTO-TWIN changed that. The people involved are working on the autonomous development of digital twins to support improved sustainability.
Specific project phases will focus on different sustainable aims, including circular economy improvements and green decision-making. Some planned pilots include using digital twins to assess battery health and recycling processes. Digital twins have already proved their value, but it’s easy to see how they could become even more widely applied if people could automate their development.
That’s particularly true since not all engineers have the necessary computing backgrounds to create digital twins. However, if automation could reduce or eliminate engineers’ dependence on getting outside help, that change could be vital for digital twins’ increased adoption.
2. Study How to Help Humans Feel Comfortable Around Robots
The modern workforce has changed dramatically over the past decade or so. Automation and sustainability have been significant parts of what’s new. The industrial robots of the past were largely confined behind safety cages, which ensured the potentially dangerous machines would never get too close to humans except in carefully monitored circumstances.
When decision-makers think about industrial sustainability, they increasingly ponder human rights, injury reduction and strategies that will boost labour force retention rates while raising output. Robots can help companies reach sustainability goals — especially if the people responsible for deploying them think carefully about what they want to achieve. However, one of the downsides of using robotic automation in this way is not all workers are excited about robots coming into the workforce.
However, that’s often because they misunderstand how employers intend to use the machines and what it means for their roles. For example, one prevalent fear is robots will take everyone’s jobs. However, automation often handles the most repetitive tasks, freeing humans up to spend more time on critical tasks.
Engineers at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus want to do more to improve interactions between robots and humans. Researchers there are using autonomous vehicle guidelines to determine how to make robots work around humans in the most efficient and safest ways possible. More specifically, the team hopes the systems they develop will make the machines perceive their surroundings and perform tasks similar to humans.
3. Use High-Tech Monitoring Options When Possible
More of today’s workers do at least part of their duties remotely. That transition has brought several benefits with it. One study found remote workers gain approximately 35 minutes per day due to fewer interruptions. Some of the perks directly support automation and sustainability.
Consider if a company invested in automation to achieve lights-out manufacturing. Then, the facility could operate 24 hours a day and seven days a week, with limited — or no — personnel on site. That’s a significant emissions-related sustainability gain.
However, even if there’s no one at the site, someone is almost certainly supervising the production remotely. Most manufacturing facilities are full of smart sensors that gather real-time data about ongoing processes. Then, the appropriate parties get alerted the moment any problems arise. It’s easy to see how such alerts could be similarly handy in fields such as civil or mechanical engineering.
Safer Monitoring of Bridges and Trains
In one example, researchers created a machine-learning algorithm to detect bridge damage. It worked by analyzing how the bridge responded when vehicles drove over it. That application aligns automation and sustainability by reducing the time and resources wasted by premature repairs. This application could help civil engineers during the design and oversight of bridges.
Another case involved developing an automated system to detect compressed air leaks on trains. That’s vital since these undetected problems can make a locomotive’s engine parts run less effectively, resulting in more fuel consumption and emissions. Moreover, these leaks can shorten the life span of critical components. It’s also problematic that traditional detection methods require people to go between or underneath trains, which is time-consuming and dangerous.
However, this new system uses cameras, audio monitoring and machine learning to find leaks without ongoing human input. It even works when the vehicles are moving. Tests showed the system’s false-positive rate was only 0.03% and it found 11 out of every 13 leaks on moving trains. This achievement should make railway engineering more productive.
How Will You Combine Automation and Sustainability?
These are some tried and tested ways to use automation in ways that will get sustainable outcomes. They’re not the only options but should give you some helpful starting points for how you might apply automation, too.