What is sustainable manufacturing?
Sustainable manufacturing, also referred to as green manufacturing or eco-friendly manufacturing, is receiving more attention in the process manufacturing world. Natural disasters like floods, wildfires, and hurricanes triggered by climate change, and the growing need to reduce pollution, are all increasing the pressure on process manufacturers to run a “green” plant.
The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines sustainable manufacturing as “the creation of manufactured products through economically sound processes that minimize negative environmental impacts while conserving energy and natural resources.” It adds that it should also increase safety for employees, local communities, and the product itself.
Sustainable manufacturing includes:
- Avoiding causing harm to the local environment
- Reducing pollution and emissions
- Cutting waste of raw materials and other resources
- Reducing consumption of energy, water, and other limited substances
- Increasing safety for workers and nearby communities
Why does sustainable manufacturing matter to process plants?
With climate change and pollution frequently making the news, the general public is increasingly worried about the impact of heavy industry on the environment. Process plants that are seen as green enjoy a competitive advantage, while those who hit the headlines for environmental disasters like an oil spill, a toxic waste leak, or a local explosion will lose customers.
Manufacturers are also realizing that sustainability is cost-effective. Reducing waste and improving use of energy, water, and raw materials enables companies to lower their costs and thereby boost their profit margins. Additionally, sustainable plants are better placed to meet governmental and industrial regulations, cutting the burden of compliance and reducing the risk of costly audits.
Finally, supply chain is an integral element of sustainable manufacturing. With a refined supply chain, manufacturing companies can raise their reliability and lower delivery times, thereby improving their reputation with customers. An optimized supply chain also supports better forecasting, enabling plants to produce the right amount of product at the right time and thus reduce the expense of unwanted products.
How can process plants implement sustainable manufacturing?
The OECD recommends increasing the percentage of used materials involved in the production process. A closed-loop approach, or circular process manufacturing lifecycle, means that when the product reaches the end of its lifecycle, it is collected to be reused into the new product. In this way, manufacturers can optimize the use of energy, raw materials, and other resources, and reduce waste and emissions.
While it’s crucial to cut energy use as much as possible, process manufacturing plants will always be heavy energy consumers. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable and/or green energy like green hydrogen, solar, wind power, or biomass can help improve the plant’s sustainability profile. Every plant activity that can be powered by renewables helps it become more eco-friendly.
Advanced predictive analytics tools, including predictive monitoring and predictive maintenance, can help reduce energy consumption and raw materials’ waste by ensuring the plant is operating at optimal efficiency. Fixing issues like bottlenecks in processes, fouling in pipes, and inaccuracies in temperature gauges helps optimize resource use and cut the risk of discarded batches.
Today’s smart plant software and industry 4.0 technologies use data from Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) to quickly spot variations in water and energy consumption. Early alerts enable teams to fix leaks or bottlenecks before they result in large-scale waste.
Smart inventory management ensures each plant has the materials it needs, without overstocking “just in case” which could lead to materials passing their expiry date.
Automation such as cobots and robotic process automation (RPA) helps lower the risk of waste due to human error. With AI, automation, and IIoT, plants are increasingly adopting “lights out” manufacturing, which cuts energy consumption by removing the need to run light and heating for human employees. Automated processes also help improve plant safety by eliminating the need to send workers into hazardous situations.
Toyota, one of the leaders in sustainable manufacturing, goes a step further and includes tree planting and other conservation activities as part of the remit of a green plant. Enhancing the natural environment and helping to preserve local ecosystems takes sustainable manufacturing beyond merely avoiding harm and brings it to active eco-friendliness.
How does sustainable manufacturing make process plants more competitive?
By implementing sustainable manufacturing practices, process plants can improve their reputation to expand their customer base, lower waste, and cut expenses to boost their profit margin and enhance their bottom line.