The past two years have seen climate change surge up the public agenda on a global scale. Dr David Pugh, Manufacturing Market Lead at Digital Catapult, looks at the different dilemmas and challenges we must tackle in order to achieve net zero emissions.
The UK’s legislative commitment to net zero by 2050 was followed by the European Union’s Green Deal, an ambitious set of initiatives to make Europe climate neutral by the same year. Then, in 2020, the UK Prime Minister set out a Ten Point Plan including a world-leading commitment to phase out the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030.
And with the arrival of Joe Biden in office and his pledge to cut US emissions by half by 2030, it felt like climate change action had finally moved beyond lip service to clear, ambitious commitments by countries that will serve to hold them directly to account.
The industrial dilemma
Of course, tackling net zero extends far beyond what we can do as consumers – although that does help.
The importance of industry reaching net zero should be made very clear in context of the overall climate movement. After all, between business and industrial processes, industry is responsible for around 20% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Thankfully, far from putting climate change on the back burner, the pandemic seems to have exacerbated efforts by organisations to tackle emissions. Quite rightly, in 2020 $152bn of new money went into ESG-labelled financial products and the total global assets in these products hit more than $1.6tn – showing that profitable doesn’t have to equal polluting.
Now that we set our sights on recovery from a record economic recession, and boards refresh their strategies to future-proof their organisations, businesses must place sustainability at front of mind and progress beyond words into action to reflect the bold commitments by our politicians.
By sustainability, I refer to environmental sustainability paired with overall business resilience and maintaining a strong ROI. While it’s taken a while to break the stigma, being green and being economical have never been mutually exclusive. Improving environmental performance is all about improving efficiencies, which ultimately is good for your bottom line too.
Let technology think for you
Advanced digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Distributed Ledger Technologies, can deliver a raft of benefits for an organisation’s green credentials. When applied in the right way, they can help businesses measure environmental impact, reduce waste, optimise use and extend the life cycles of vital assets.
What’s more, as industry begins to embrace the next evolution of connectivity with 5G, an exciting opportunity for businesses to create a ‘network or networks’, integrating several advanced technologies to work in tandem, is coming to the fore. This is something Digital Catapult is exploring through a number of our projects including 5G Factory of the Future, aimed at helping businesses in the North unlock the benefits of 5G for their industrial processes.
5G also can help make digital twins – essentially, systems that aggregate and present data from a remote system, informing future decision making – a reality. By coupling physical assets or processes to a virtual representation with a functional output, we can manage our assets in a ‘greener’ manner by pinpointing unnecessary waste.
It’s vital for all of our industries – not just the big polluters – to familiarise themselves with the solutions available to help accelerate their contribution to net zero; not only taking a vested interest in the host of options available, but testing them and developing strong use cases for their permanent integration in their business.
Dr David Pugh is the Manufacturing Market Lead at Digital Catapult. Image courtesy of Digital Catapult.
Greening supply chains
It doesn’t just stop with businesses in silo. As part of a supply chain, businesses must hold their partners and suppliers to account and make efforts to ensure they are working together in the most efficient way possible.
Currently, supply chains remain fragmented, with sporadic data sharing and poor information flow leading to materials and energy being wasted at every stage. Thankfully, we’re seeing business’ interest grow in technologies like blockchain to help align supply chain knowledge, with some initial positive impacts being felt in industries including pharmaceuticals and food & drink.
One of the projects Digital Catapult is working on looks at the very issue of greening the supply chain; the Digital Sandwich will deliver an open, national demonstrator of a digitalised food supply chain, using sandwich manufacturing as the use case. Targets for the project include a 10% reduction in food waste and a 10% increase in productivity.
Meanwhile, our work with AIEVO as part of a consortium also looks at optimising data sharing in the supply chain – delivering cost savings of up to 30% for companies, while reducing carbon emissions and significantly reducing waste.
Paving a joint path to net zero
Just as collaboration across the supply chain is key, cooperation and sharing innovation across large and small business communities will help us make strides towards our net zero goals.
We’re seeing the UK start-up community leading the charge when it comes to developing new applications of advanced digital technologies. Our Made Smarter Technology Accelerator sees innovators partnering with industry titans to develop prototypes to cut emissions, streamline supply chains and improve efficiencies.
Start-up Singular Intelligence, for example, will be working with Sainsbury’s to increase shelf life and sellthrough of products while reducing waste. Using AI-based decision making they will be developing a predictive shelflife model for the supply chain, along with an automated, centralised optimal control system.
Understandably, business’ technological estates can be highly complex – often hybrid – places and the idea of introducing new equipment can feel both risky and intimidating.
It must be remembered that these technologies can be used for retrofitting legacy equipment in addition to developing new, bespoke equipment. Deploying low power sensors to understand the sources and magnitude of carbon emissions are the first step towards a sustainable manufacturing operation, while utilising AI technologies through existing data sets can enable optimised processes that reduce carbon emissions while increasing output.
The journey ahead
There’s no question that it’s going to be a rocky road ahead to net zero; recently, it emerged that the world’s glaciers are actually melting at an accelerating rate.
But I do think businesses are gradually starting to wake up and take note, and I wouldn’t be surprised if roles entirely dedicated to sustainability, looking at cutting emissions and waste in the supply chain, begin to emerge rapidly.
With advanced digital technologies available to help us get there, it would be foolish for industry to turn a blind eye. After all: the world depends on it.
*Header image courtesy of Shutterstock