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How smart manufacturing can drive sustainability and equity

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It’s not an exaggeration to say that the world has developed at an incredible pace in the last few centuries. Collectively, we have made several transformational leaps and bounds throughout history, and the rate of change is only getting faster over time. Part of this transformation includes the evolution of the manufacturing industry, and its development from using steam and machinery in the first Industrial Revolution, to the smart manufacturing solutions and technologies widely seen and used today in Industry 4.0.

Smart manufacturing, also known as Industry 4.0, refers to the integration of advanced manufacturing technologies, data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT) into the manufacturing process. This integration allows for the creation of a more connected, automated, and flexible production system.

Key components of smart manufacturing include the use of additive manufacturing, advanced robotics, and the implementation of digital twins – virtual replicas of physical devices that enable real-time monitoring and analysis. These technologies work cohesively to optimise production processes, improve efficiency, and reduce waste. But how does smart manufacturing help to drive sustainability and equity in the industry?

How smart manufacturing drives sustainability

The benefits of smart manufacturing for sustainability are significant. By leveraging advanced technologies and data-driven insights, manufacturers can minimise resource consumption, reduce emissions, and enhance overall environmental performance. This aligns with sustainability goals and contributes to cost savings and operational efficiency – it’s been found that advanced manufacturing processes can lead to significant reductions in machine downtime while improving productivity.

In addition, smart manufacturing can contribute to sustainability goals in various ways. For instance, predictive maintenance enabled by IoT sensors and data analytics can help prevent equipment failures, thereby reducing downtime and extending the lifespan of machinery. A Deloitte report found that effective predictive maintenance can lead to benefits such as up to 10% in cost savings, up to 20% increased equipment uptime, and up to 50% reduced maintenance time.

Manufacturers can also adopt additive manufacturing and advanced robotics for more precise and efficient production processes, leading to reduced material waste and energy usage. Additionally, the implementation of digital twins enables manufacturers to simulate and optimise production scenarios, leading to more sustainable resource utilisation and tangible sustainability results – companies like LG Electronics and Procter & Gamble experienced a 30% reduction in energy consumption and inventory respectively thanks to digital twins.

The impact of smart manufacturing on environmental sustainability also extends beyond the factory floor. By creating more sustainable products and processes, manufacturers can contribute to a circular economy and reduce the environmental footprint of their entire value chain.

Driving equity through smart manufacturing: opportunities and challenges

While the environmental benefits of smart manufacturing are clear, embracing these new innovations also presents opportunities to address social and economic equity in the manufacturing sector. By incorporating inclusive and equitable practices, manufacturers can create a more diverse and empowered workforce, driving positive social impact and overall sustainability.

These practices include creating a safer and more accessible work environments by using advanced technologies, implementing training programmes to upskill employees for the digital era, and promoting diversity and inclusion in hiring and advancement practices.

However, despite the potential benefits, there are still obstacles to implementing sustainable and equitable practices in manufacturing. Industry leaders may face high initial investment required for advanced technologies, encounter difficulties when sourcing for specialised talent to operate and maintain these systems, and complexities when integrating new technologies into existing processes. Indeed, the skill gap has been felt keenly in the industry, with around 57% of manufacturing leaders in a Gartner survey stating that they don’t have the talent to support their digital transformation.

To overcome these challenges, manufacturers must develop long-term strategies that prioritise sustainability and equity, seek partnerships with technology providers and educational institutions, and invest in continuous training and development for their workforce.

Additionally, government incentives and industry collaborations can help alleviate some of the financial burdens associated with technology adoption. For example, Singapore has outlined its manufacturing growth plans with Singapore Economy Vision 2030, while the United States government is prepared to splash out US$50 million to fund smart manufacturing development for small- and medium-sized factories.

Developing more sustainability and equity with smart manufacturing

Looking ahead, manufacturers must keep their ears on the ground to adapt their operations and drive sustainability and equity more effectively. By looking out for some of the emerging sustainability trends in smart manufacturing, like the further integration of IoT and data analytics to optimise resource usage, the development of more sustainable materials and production processes to reduce waste, and keeping a closer eye on worker health and safety, manufacturers can make real progress in creating a more progressive industry.

For manufacturers looking to prioritise sustainability and equity in their operations, conducting a comprehensive assessment of current practices, identifying areas for improvement, and developing a roadmap for integrating smart manufacturing solutions is highly recommended. The use of maturity assessments and industry benchmarking tools like the Consumer Sustainability Industry Readiness Index (COSIRI) can streamline this process and help manufacturers track and compare their progress more efficiently and fairly. Additionally, fostering a culture of innovation, collaboration, and continuous improvement will be essential in driving meaningful change.

With these steps taken, the collective impact on resource conservation, emissions reduction, and social empowerment will be significant, contributing to a more sustainable and equitable future for the industry and the world.

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