Sustainable Manufacturing for American Manufacturers

Automating for America: How Automation Supports Sustainable Manufacturing

The concept of “sustainable manufacturing” certainly gets a lot of attention these days, though from reading many recent articles on the topic, we fear that there is widespread confusion and lack of definition on what this means at a practical level. 

Here we look at what sustainability in manufacturing truly means, and how your business might view upcoming automation projects in this light.

Measuring the True Sustainability Benefit of Automation

Let’s help shore up what sustainable manufacturing means by first looking at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) definition: “Sustainable manufacturing is the creation of manufactured products through economically sound processes that minimize negative environmental impacts while conserving energy and natural resources.”

From this definition, we find three clarifications to point out:

  • “Sustainable manufacturing” is not a piece of equipment or software that you can buy.  A machine or automation project is not “sustainable” itself. No matter what an equipment vendor says, purchasing a capital equipment solution to reach a sustainable goal still consumes the metal, copper, silicon, electricity and other non-sustainable raw materials that go into building that equipment or software.  
  • A manufacturing equipment or software piece cannot “operate” as a sustainable solution in isolation. These pieces still need electricity, human involvement and other resources to run. Even if they are reducing resource consumption compared to existing processes, that doesn’t make the machinery or software itself sustainable, unless somehow it creates its own energy and consumables.  Equipment will need spare parts, and software will eventually see its computing hardware need replacement, both cases still consume non-sustainable inputs.    
  • The only way a manufacturing solution is sustainable is if it produces products in ways that reduce environmental and resource impacts (and here’s the key point) between the aggregate consumption of resources needed for both the equipment AND the products manufactured across the life of the equipment. In other words, you can’t buy a sustainable capital equipment or software piece; you can only buy a piece of equipment or software that makes products where both together consume fewer resources and have less environmental impact than prior solutions, in order to be considered a sustainable solution.  

A quick example: Purchasing a molding machine to make 2,000 more plastic mold units a day, even at a 10 percent lower energy consumption per unit, still puts 2,000 more plastic parts out into the world, making the overall aggregate resource consumption non-sustainable. If instead, a new molding machine produces 2,000 more units per day, while also changing the mold to a replaceable organic resin instead of non-replaceable plastic, the new “green” material now allows the aggregate resource consumption load to be considered sustainable.  

Below we’ll help drive this point home by sharing a short list of benefits that sustainable solutions provide. Remember, the key is to balance the resources consumed in both implementing automation and producing the intended products against the aggregate resources saved over time.  

Automation Benefits Toward True Sustainability 

Direct benefits offered by sustainable automation solutions include: 

Reduced Reject Parts

Most automation upgrades can reduce rejected parts by robotizing manual tasks and adding instrumentation to improve task accuracy, but how can we make this improvement sustainable? Take the “bare minimum” approach: Only implement as much automation as necessary to gain the highest number of rejects saved, where the savings in reject materials and energy consumed outweigh the new materials needed to construct the solution, measured across a reasonable amount of time, say three to five years.        

Reduced Raw Material Waste 

New equipment should always be more energy-efficient and more accurate than older equipment, but is that enough to hit sustainability goals? No. To be sustainable, specify finer-tolerance automation that reduces how much raw material has to be cut, machined or otherwise processed to produce the final good, on top of baseline higher efficiency and energy consumption requirements, to cut total gross consumption involved with the project.    

Increased Production Throughput 

Increases in yields can be considered sustainable if you can use automation to achieve your required production volume in less time, allowing you to decrease operating hours and save overall production energy. If instead you use this time savings to produce more units for the same or longer amounts of time, you haven’t cut any resource consumption, and in fact you have likely increased it.    

Continuous Improvement 

Automation is a toolset that can improve processes across an entire supply chain, not just inside of a single plant, reaching sustainable outcomes as a result of a wider approach than just looking at point time and energy consumption.  For example, modern automated equipment can learn its own performance data on the fly, optimizing its own performance in real time. Sustainability comes from this type of in-situ optimization when an automated equipment piece continuously improves itself to the point of energy, raw material and operating hour minimization. Software tools can also provide similar benefits, such as optimizing delivery truck routes for minimum fuel consumption and emissions.         

Improved Secondary Processes 

Automating workflows using sensors and logic also provides a host of benefits to secondary processes, so long as purchasers are aware of and specify these interests with their initial requirements. For example, it takes little effort to program onboard PLC controls to turn off devices when machinery is idle (such as powering down illumination and sensors, safety concerns notwithstanding), or to trend motor power draws for energy conservation in non-peak load conditions (such as moving refrigeration loads to one compressor and powering down unneeded compressors, surge capacity also notwithstanding).  

The Path to Sustainable Manufacturing 

As the world slowly adopts the widespread need for sustainable, conservational goals across all industries and markets, the definition of sustainability will surely evolve and solidify into a phrase simply meaning consume less than can be replaced. Until then, we urge manufacturers to look at the total consumption of any project in order to gauge sustainability, not just the initial equipment or software purchase. That said, this doesn’t mean that any automation investment that doesn’t cut total consumption isn’t viable.  Moves towards ultimate sustainability have to start somewhere, but we should refer to projects appropriately (which might mean they are “energy efficiency” or “power saving” projects, not sustainability projects), and draft them into an overall sustainability plan that we dedicate ourselves to over time.

Guy O'Gara

As president and CEO for the last 20 years, Guy’s leadership keeps AMS going strong. He takes responsibility for understanding the industrial automation industry, AMS customers and every team member so that he can find a winning strategy that benefits everyone.