The manufacturing industry is prioritizing environmental, social, and governance policies more than ever before. Here’s how automation is helping.
As the world grows increasingly interconnected, responsible corporate stewardship is becoming more of a priority for company leadership, investors, consumers, and workers who are seeking employment at a business that aligns with their values. Organizations are turning to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) policies to understand their impact on the physical sphere and the community in which they operate, and to make sure that their business decisions foster a sustainable relationship with both.
A company’s impacts across its workforce, environment, and external stakeholders are a lot to keep track of, to say nothing of actually using the information. But Industry 4.0 has developed the tools to streamline monitoring, ingestion, and analysis of vast arrays of data points, which manufacturers can use to swiftly implement strategic changes. Smart factories are more intelligent and autonomous than ever before, which helps manufacturers embed best practices directly into day-to-day operations. Here’s how industrial automation is helping companies do well by doing good.
Environmental concerns are top-of-mind for many industries these days, and manufacturing is no exception. An increased push for greener industry is driving regulatory changes both in the US and internationally. High on the list of considerations for the manufacturing industry are emissions and resource consumption—water, energy, and raw materials, among others.
Desire from stakeholders for transparency around an organization’s environmental impact means that monitoring and reporting technologies are becoming a bigger part of factory operations. But time-consuming practices like in-person wastewater or gas sampling, coupled with outdated, unconnected, or nonexistent remote monitoring result in a lack of real-time data on factory emissions. Modern emissions monitoring sensors provide updates in real time with high-quality, trackable data that ensures accountability and reassures stakeholders. Intelligent automation software can even analyze the feedback from emissions sensors and flag outliers for review, or engage process controls to automatically adjust and bring emissions back in line with factory limits.
Automation plays a role at the front end, as well, monitoring resource usage in factory settings. This could be as straightforward as track-and-trace for raw materials, to validate the efficiency of production processes. It could also be as granular as continuous monitoring of factory energy consumption, noting spikes and flagging operators to check them, or automatically placing unused equipment in low-power modes.
Efficient manufacturing is good for both ESG priorities and a business’ bottom line. Getting more out of your existing resources means less energy consumption, less resource extraction, and greater return on investment. Automation has long been an important element in industrial efficiency gains because it can perform repetitive tasks with consistency and precision, and with little risk of injury to workers. The resulting product is of high quality with minimal variation, even across multiple facilities. In addition, sensors embedded in robotic equipment can provide feedback that allows production lines to refine their processes and increase output.
Sensitive visioning and metrology systems can also ensure rigorous quality control at each step of the manufacturing process, catching problems early and reducing the need for rework, scrapping, or recall of flawed products. A high success rate in producing quality products from raw materials translates to less waste in the production process, and less waste leads to reduced environmental impact and lower cost.
The members of a manufacturer’s workforce are deeply impacted by its business decisions, and are a key part of the “social” aspect of ESG policies. The things that workers do well are different from the areas where robots excel, and each can help the other elevate their performance. When intelligently executed, an automation strategy can ensure higher productivity and a better working experience for human operators in a factory setting.
Advanced data systems combined with leading-edge augmented reality technologies can provide workers with training, instant data access, assembly instructions, and real-time quality assurance on the factory floor. Automated systems in the form of cobots help workers lift and position objects, enhancing both worker safety and the quality of the finished product. A safe working environment helps to build a sustainable workforce by retaining experienced talent and building confidence with newcomers. Assistive cobots can also broaden the potential labor pool, opening up positions to workers of different abilities and talents, and providing an opportunity to expand workforce diversity.
Process and policy automation through software
The flexible, robust software backbone of large-scale automation deployments provides a ready-made framework for data security and governance. With digital process controls in place and a manufacturing execution system (MES) to monitor and analyze factory data, transparency is a given—making cybersecurity goals to protect business and customer data much more achievable. More granular software policies build in security elements like activity logs, limited file access, and controls on copying and sharing of data.
Digitized processes also make it easier for companies to define and broadly implement corporate policies. These could be production best-practices to stay in line with federal environmental policies, or individual-level worker hiring criteria and performance indicators. Formalizing these policies and tracking them digitally is a win for transparency, providing stakeholders with the information that ensures the company stays accountable in its decision-making.
Manufacturing operations are growing more global, but at the same time, ESG policies—and lessons learned from the last few years of supply-chain disruptions—are also encouraging a local focus. Standardizing operations between facilities, across political boundaries, and in differing regulatory environments presents a challenge. Fortunately, industrial automation has solutions.
Industrial IIoT and intelligent remote monitoring allow manufacturers visibility throughout the production process, increasing consistency and efficiency, and cutting down on emissions from travel for in-person observation or training. Additionally, with centralized data collection and analysis, production methods and best practices can be applied consistently across facilities, ensuring not only a high-quality product but a standardized, efficient process.
More mature automation systems can in turn rely on machine intelligence and edge computing to monitor and adjust processes in a decentralized way. Locating advanced data analysis capabilities within individual facilities, or even specific operational centers, reduces round-trip time for data analysis and cuts down the energy cost of transmitting large amounts of data. These local control and execution systems can also monitor equipment for preventive maintenance and produce process recommendations targeted to the unique needs of their individual facilities.
Industrial automation empowers manufacturers to deliver on ESG goals.
Manufacturing companies are shouldering responsibility for their impact on the world around them. Defining environmental, social, and governance policies is one early step toward creating a sustainable future for the industry—one that benefits corporations, their investors, their workers, and their communities. Industrial automation boosts the efficiency, flexibility, and transparency that are foundational to ESG goals.
At Eagle, we know that your automation solution needs to be as unique as your business. If you have questions about reducing waste, increasing efficiency, or introducing smart monitoring through automation, contact Eagle. We’ll work with you to find the right strategy.
Eagle Technologies, headquarters in Bridgman, MI