29 Nov 2021

Prioritising sustainable manufacturing operations is critical to their future success

With COP26 taking place earlier in the month, it is clear that the actions needed to mitigate climate change are now becoming a serious priority among world leaders.

While the event made headline news across the globe, we must not lose sight of the growing impatience towards waste, ecological damage, and the overuse of precious natural resources caused by consumerism and industrialisation. We only must bear witness to the images of swathes of decimated forests, polluted rivers, and burgeoning piles of plastic waste to know society is heading towards a tipping point in attitudes.

Manufacturers should by now be acutely aware that the spotlight will increasingly turn on them, not only by governments, but by consumers and society at large. Now is the time that every manufacturer – from global brand icons to small single plant operations – recognise that sustainable manufacturing operations is critical to their future success and reputation.

Digital transformation has become a major theme in manufacturing today, especially within shop floor operations where outdated and legacy processes continue to dominate.  However, for Jason Chester, Director of Global Channel Programs at InfinityQS the drive towards optimising manufacturing efficiency and productivity should no longer centre solely around performance and profit but equally revolve around sustainability, with sustainable practices being at the forefront of any manufacturer’s digital transformation strategy.

Chester said: “The past 18 months have seen manufacturers experience a period of uncertainty, with the pandemic and Brexit revealing widespread supply and demand chain fragility as well as the global semiconductor shortage limiting operations across the automotive sector. And with inflation beginning to rise sharply, more uncertainty and volatility is surely yet to come.  However, sustainability could be the biggest challenge yet.

“Coverage on climate change is dominating TV screens resulting in consumers and brands paying attention to the environmental impact of products and services. The rise of social media has made it easier for consumers to express their concerns on climate change, with some even organising boycotts against organisations in extreme circumstances. This pressure towards responsible and sustainable manufacturing is only going to grow and it will be increasingly difficult for organisations to be transparent as to their response.

Having a productive and efficient production system has always been an important aspect of manufacturing operations, with the aim being to secure profits, growth, and stakeholder value. Yet, if a product does not meet the correct specification it goes to scrap, waste or for rework. While many manufacturers recognise that has a negative impact on performance, the unused resources that go in to making that product in the first place is also wasted, whether human resource, machinery or tool wear, energy and natural resources or input materials.  While this approach to quality is important to ensure organisations continue operating well and keep their customers happy, their mindset must evolve to also understand how that waste could impact the environment.

“Asking questions is only the beginning. Taking action is even more important. For manufactures to truly make an impact they must rethink how they design their products and their production processes, how they source and transport materials and goods, and manage their processes and so on. But they also must not overlook how by optimising their production processes to minimise waste and maximise efficiency and productivity will also greatly assist in mitigating any negative impact on the environment.  Digital transformation is a critical factor in not only being able to, but also by to what degree, those manufacturers are to optimise their production operations.”

With global leaders having discussions and setting goals on how to reduce the impact of climate change, the same cannot be said within the manufacturing industry. A recent survey revealed two-fifth of UK manufacturers are operating without a sustainability policy. Often manufacturers have quoted cost and time to be a barrier to achieve a more sustainable operation but with the right technology, it is possible.

Chester explains: “There is major potential for manufacturers to use technology to their advantage. For example, during the Covid pandemic, factories across many countries were closed or at reduced capacity due to lockdown restrictions. This provided the optimal time for manufacturers to invest in their digital transformation initiatives – which many did. Those that chose to invest did so because they knew it would enhance operations and increase efficiency, which in the long run would increase profits. This same technology can and should now be used to make sustainable operational decisions. Utilising new technology allows manufacturers to unravel the complexity in their processes and give them the visibility to ensure they are able to make those decisions at every level within their operations.

“The topic of climate change isn’t going to fade away, if anything it will become more prevalent. World leaders will now begin taking climate change into account when making decisions on most things, from transport to farming, as well as corporate governance, and the same approach must start to happen in the manufacturing industry. Questioning how a decision will impact the environment is the first step, but the most important step is to take real action and change the way you operate before it’s too late,” concluded Chester.