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Sustainable Manufacturing Is the Wave of the Future

An increasing number of manufacturers are recognizing the significant financial and environmental benefits from sustainable business practices. The U.S. Department of Commerce defines sustainable manufacturing as “the creation of manufactured products that use processes that minimize negative environmental impacts, conserve energy and natural resources, are safe for employees, communities, and consumers and are economically sound.”

Sustainable Manufacturing Circle

The aim for sustainable manufacturing is to enable manufacturers to maximize revenues and global leadership, while conserving natural resources and protecting the environment. Essential to sustainable manufacturing is technology investment—automation, robotics, software, IT, and sensor technologies—all of which are the foundation for the Internet of Things (IoT), and necessary for sustainable manufacturing operations.


Benefits of Sustainable Manufacturing


A growing number of companies treat “sustainability” as an important objective in their operations for increasing growth, global competitiveness and brand awareness. Key benefits to sustainability are:


  • Improved operational efficiency by reducing costs and waste
  • Long-term business viability and success
  • Lower regulatory compliance costs
  • Improved sales and brand recognition
  • Greater access to financing and capital
  • Easier employee hiring and retention


Every aspect of the manufacturing process—from design through production to shipping—must be continually evaluated from the sustainable viewpoint. This includes packaging, which is sometimes considered as an afterthought. A new study from Smithers Pira, however, shows that manufacturers are increasingly aware of the need for sustainable packaging.


“Packaging materials are extremely visible to the consumer,” writes the company in a press release. “There are intense and growing pressures from consumers, retailers, packaged product suppliers, governments, regulators, non-government organizations, and environmental groups for the development of environmentally-friendly or green materials, packaging designs and end-of-life processes to improve packaging sustainability by reducing its societal and environmental impacts.”


How much does a sustainability program increase profits? It varies according to the level of commitment and investment of resources. But for companies that take it seriously, it can be millions of dollars a year.


Jerry Jasinowski, former president of the National Association of Manufacturers and later The Manufacturing Institute, helped oversee a study conducted by the University of Indiana that looked at how leading companies in the sustainability movement have achieved their successes.


“One of the companies reported that, while growing 40 percent over the past 15 years, it had saved about $7 billion through sustainable manufacturing practices,” says Jasinowski. “Another reduced its manufacturing footprint in North America from 15 million square feet to 5 million square feet. Still another eliminated 14 hazardous waste streams, reducing its annual waste disposal tab from $750,000 to $40,000 in one year.”


Becoming Sustainable


Obvious ways to achieve sustainable manufacturing include reduction of energy and water use, cutting emissions from manufacturing processes and reducing physical waste and recycling. For greatest success, sustainability needs to be part of the design for manufacturing (DFM) process up front, not a later consideration on the back end of the process. For example, engineers can design products that are easy to recycle when they reach the end of their usefulness. This makes it easy for consumers to recycle the product and builds brand awareness and customer loyalty for being a thoughtful steward of the environment.


Automation is absolutely essential for sustainability. In an article, automation consultant Rajabahadur Arcot writes that “measuring various process parameters and automatically controlling some of the relevant ones, automation systems help manufacturing companies to successfully achieve the goals of sustainable manufacturing that include achieving high level of resource efficiencies, reducing energy consumption, and minimizing land, water, and atmospheric emissions and pollutants.” This also requires investments into the tools and programs needed to extract and analyze relevant and reliable existing data.


“Manufacturing companies can set benchmarks and KPIs [key performance indicators] and automation systems can help not only monitor them but also achieve those goals,” continues Arcot. “The manufacturing industry can collaborate with the automation industry to develop solutions to the sustainability challenges and the collaboration will be mutually beneficial.”


Resources for Sustainable Manufacturing


The Reducing Embodied-energy and Decreasing Emissions (“REMADE”) Institute, established in January 2017, is part of the federal “National Network for Manufacturing Innovation” (NNMI). The $140-million manufacturing institute will research new and less expensive ways to reuse, recycle and remanufacture metals, fibers, polymers and electronic waste through all stages of manufacturing.


The EPA’s website provides a business case for adopting sustainability, real-world case studies, and a glossary of terms relating to sustainable manufacturing. Another essential tool is the OECD Sustainable Manufacturing Toolkit. Developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) after two years of consulting with many sustainability experts from around the world, this valuable resource provides a set of internationally applicable, common and comparable indicators for measuring the environmental performance of manufacturing facilities.


“We think it is important to have not only the right tools, but also to be informed about what works,” says Andrew Wyckoff, director of OECD’s Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry. “That’s why we have also included a range of best-practice case studies that illustrate the many benefits of sustainable manufacturing. Saving money, improving products, making operations more efficient and increasing sales are all possible for those taking up this new challenge.”

"We think it is important to have not only the right tools, but also to be informed about what works."
Andrew Wyckoff, Director of OECD’s Directorate for Science, Technology and Industry

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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