COP26, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference took place in Glasgow early November. It is now abundantly clear that the actions needed to mitigate climate change are becoming a serious priority among world leaders. While the event made climate change headlines around the world, we must not lose sight of other environmental imperatives such as the growing impatience towards waste, ecological damage, and the overuse of precious natural resources caused by consumerism and industrialization.

We only must bear witness to the images of decimated forests, polluted rivers, and burgeoning piles of plastic waste to really understand that society is heading rapidly towards a rebellion in attitudes, and industry is going to be squarely in the firing line.

Thereby, manufacturers should by now be acutely aware that the spotlight will increasingly turn on them. Blame will be directed at them, not only through the lenses of governments, but also by consumers and society at large, as well as by their customers. Now should be the time that every manufacturer (from global brand icons to small single plant operations) recognizes that sustainable manufacturing operations are critical to their future success and brand reputation.

Sustainability in manufacturing

The past 18 months have seen manufacturers experience a period of uncertainty, with the pandemic and Brexit revealing widespread supply and demand chain fragility. With inflation beginning to rise sharply, more uncertainty and volatility is surely yet to come.

It’s undeniable that coverage on climate change has been dominating our TV screens and newspaper front pages in recent times. This has resulted in both consumers and brands paying more attention to the environmental impact of products and services. The rise of social media has made it easier for consumers to express their concerns about industries and companies deemed guilty of environmental irresponsibility, with some activists even organizing boycotts against organizations in extreme circumstances. This pressure towards responsible and sustainable manufacturing is only going to grow, and thereby it will become increasingly important for organizations to be transparent in 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 recognize that has a negative impact on performance, the unused resources that go in to making that product in the first place are also wasted, whether human resource, machinery or tool wear, energy and natural resources or raw materials. While this approach to quality is important to ensure organizations continue operating well and keep their customers happy, their mindset must evolve to also understand how that waste is impacting the overall environmental footprint of their operations. Efficiency and productivity in manufacturing is now quite simply becoming more about corporate, social and environmental responsibility than just business performance.

Act now to reap future rewards

Global leaders are having discussions and setting goals on how to reduce the impact of environmental implications, but the same cannot be said within the manufacturing industry. In fact, a recent survey revealed that two-fifths of UK manufacturers are operating without a sustainability policy. Often manufacturers have quoted cost and time to be a barrier to achieving a more sustainable operation - but with the right technology, it is possible.

For manufacturers to truly make an impact they must rethink not only how they design their products but also how they design, manage and monitor their end-to-end production processes. But they also must not overlook how by optimizing their production processes to minimize waste and maximize efficiency and productivity will also contribute significantly to the mitigation of any negative environmental repercussions.

There is major potential opportunity for manufacturers to use technology to their advantage. For instance, during the Covid pandemic, factories across many countries were closed or at reduced capacity due to lockdown restrictions. This provided time for manufacturers to invest in their digital transformation initiatives. 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. Utilizing new technologies in turn will allow manufacturers to unravel the complexity in their processes and give them sufficient visibility to ensure they can make decisions comfortably at every level within their operations.

Profit is no longer at the forefront of digital transformation

Digital transformation has become a major theme in manufacturing today, especially within shop floor operations where outdated and legacy processes continue to dominate.

The drive towards optimizing manufacturing efficiency and productivity should no longer center solely around performance and profit but equally revolve around sustainability, with sustainable practices being at the forefront of any manufacturer’s digital transformation strategy.

The topics of climate change and environmental responsibility are not going to fade away, instead they will become more prevalent and more urgent. The most important step for manufacturers is to take real action and change the way they operate. Reframing how digitalization and smart manufacturing are perceived through the lens of sustainability is, in my view, one of those critical steps.

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