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How Automation Drives More Sustainability in Manufacturing

Most manufacturing leaders know they must focus on sustainability in their operations. However, they don’t always know the best way to start. Automation offers plentiful opportunities to achieve more sustainable operations.

Automated Data Collection Gives Better Organizational Visibility

Today’s manufacturers are in an excellent position to get ongoing statistics about their business operations by deploying automated sensors that collect and transmit data. That information is critical for gauging whether sustainability efforts have the desired effects.

A 2022 Google Cloud survey of executives in manufacturing and numerous other industries indicated only 36% have measurement tools to quantify their sustainability efforts. Then, only 17% that are measuring those statistics use the relevant data for optimization. That’s problematic, especially since 58% of respondents said their companies have exaggerated information about their sustainability claims.

Smart sensors can collect information in the background and automatically send it to the cloud for review. Manufacturing professionals can also save money by using sensors within a maintenance strategy.  Doing that warns them of problems, making them proactive rather than reactive. When people change equipment parts or perform upkeep only when necessary, they’re behaving sustainably.

Switching components out too early generates unnecessary waste. But when machines go too long between service appointments, it’s more likely they’ll produce more emissions, leak fluids or have other problems that could pollute the environment and cause safety risks.

Emphasizing smart data collection could also reveal new insights that could improve sustainability if executives take the necessary steps. Imagine if statistics show a factory wastes a significant amount of energy by keeping lights on in unoccupied areas. Adequate illumination is critical for keeping people safe, but people could save power by installing smart lights that turn on or off after detecting motion.

Prioritizing Sustainability Through Automation Brings Multiple Potential Benefits

Some manufacturers initially pursue automation to improve sustainability and end up experiencing numerous other advantages. That was a primary takeaway from a 2023 IDC/UiPath study. The results showed 54% of respondents were already using enterprise automation products to support sustainability goals. Plus, a further 24% intend to do so within two years.

The participants also expected various positive outcomes by focusing on sustainability with automation. For example, 40% anticipated better operational efficiency and more money saved. Then, 33% believed a sustainability focus would make their brands more valuable and trustworthy.

More than half of respondents also believed automation would make their workers more satisfied and enable them to do more meaningful work. Another top benefit — cited by 55% of those polled — was that automation would make it easier for company representatives to source data.

Suppose company leaders feel they need support when deploying automation for sustainability. Then, one possibility is to join a collaborative program such as the United States’ Department of Energy Better Plants Program. Nearly 300 industrial organizations take part in it. The results have already proved impressive. The companies have saved 1.9 quadrillion British thermal units and $9 billion since 2021.

The World Economic Forum also has another manufacturing collective called the Global Lighthouse Network. Its participants focus on accelerating and spreading the utilization of Industry 4.0 technologies to achieve multiple positive outcomes — including improved sustainability.

One consumer healthcare manufacturer used an automated sensor-fed system to achieve a 25% reduction in energy use and an 18% reduction in CO2 emissions. An important thing to remember is that no single automation solution is the best sustainability option for every company. However, taking the time to identify and address challenges will show areas for improvement.

Robots and Automated Software Products Support Waste Reduction

The world has a gigantic waste problem, and people are working hard to solve it. Consider one international cross-disciplinary project that enables the creative use for plastic waste. Those involved in this effort hope to make furnished homes from plastic waste with a 3D printing-based system.

However, automation can play a significant role — and often during the manufacture of products that directly support sustainability. Viridi Parente is a company that makes electric vehicle batteries and other sustainable power sources. People from the business hired software-driven automation company Bright Machines to improve workflows for the organization’s stationary lithium-ion battery pack system modules.

Besides using automation to improve assembly at Viridi Parente, the Bright Machines technology includes a production assessment aspect that reduces defect rates. It’s also advantageous that Viridi’s factory is strategically close to many of its customers, reducing how far finished products must travel. People involved in this project believe the power-source brand will reduce its landfill contributions and carbon emissions with this automation-driven approach.

In another case, an Oak Ridge National Laboratory team created an automated assembly line to disassemble batteries for recycling. Estimates suggested it could handle at least 100 batteries in the time it takes people to manage just 12 manually.

Recycling projects are critical for companies prioritizing sustainability by reducing supplier and resource dependence. The ideal would be a closed-loop scenario where a manufacturer could get all the supplies for new products by recycling previously owned ones. That’s a lofty goal, but one Apple’s working toward.

Its Daisy robot can disassemble 23 kinds of iPhones and recover elements such as cobalt. Moreover, a robot called Dave takes apart components used for Apple’s Taptic Engine technology, which provides tactile feedback in certain devices. Dave extracts resources including tungsten, steel and rare-earth magnets.

Automation Creates a More Sustainable Future

More than automation is needed to make a manufacturer meet all its sustainability goals. However, taking inspiration from the examples above can motivate people in the industry with decision-making authority to begin exploring automated solutions to sustainability barriers.

Committing to sustainability improvements is the first step. After executives decide what to achieve first, they can begin researching technologies that’ll make those goals accessible.

They must also remember that automation can start in the manufacturing plant, but it should extend to suppliers and other partners when possible. Such collaborative efforts create ripple effects that can set excellent examples for other manufacturers and partners to follow.

A final consideration is that sustainability is an ongoing process. People should continually look for ways to enhance how they use automation and get better results. Instead of expecting immediate results, individuals should collect data and monitor it to see how statistics change over time.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over six years experience writing articles for the tech and industrial sectors. Subscribe to the Revolutionized newsletter for more content from Emily at
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