How digital transformation enables greater sustainability

Posted on 6 May 2021 by The Manufacturer

The norm in manufacturing has changed dramatically. While remote collaboration was concentrated to a small number of teams and sectors in the design and make space, it quickly developed into the only option for the majority last year. In fact, the industry embraced this rapid innovation and flexibility to meet the much-needed requirements of the health industry.  

It’s hard to believe it has been almost a year since I wrote about the adaptability and versatility of the manufacturing workforce and their tools, when production shifted from cars to masks, from airplane parts to ventilators. Covid-19 has now changed manufacturing beyond digital literacy, collaboration, crowd sourcing expertise and convergence. The spotlight is now on social responsibility, sustainability and environmental impact.

Aligning with sustainable development

The UN 2030 Climate Report has warned that globally, the pace of progress is too slow to meet climate goals. In a matter of years, not decades, we must align with the urgency of sustainable development and climate change by transforming our economies and businesses to be greener.

In fact, digital transformation emerged as the centrepiece for a more resilient and sustainable future in Autodesk’s recently-published report in partnership with Frost & Sullivan, which sought to uncover the sustainability drivers, challenges and approaches of firms in Northern Europe. The European Green Deal was found to be a key driver of sustainability for design and manufacturing industries in Europe and has the potential to catalyse the low-carbon transition to lean manufacturing and more sustainable methods.

Fusion 360

Making informed sustainable decisions

Today, 90% of manufacturing firms in Northern Europe are investing in improved workflows to improve their energy and material efficiency, rising to 95% for respondents in the UK and Ireland. Another compelling finding was the common practice of having a dedicated sustainability team in the organisation, with 86% in manufacturing citing they do. Indeed, this was often made up of stakeholders from across the business, indicating the many facets that sustainability impacts and the importance of company-wide representation in this area.

Although regulation is a critical factor to drive adoption of sustainable processes on the road to net zero, the biggest factors behind manufacturers’ adoption are customer retention (89%), competitive advantage (76%) and supply chain and partner expectations (57%). This is driving greater transparency between manufacturers and their clients. For example, lighting manufacturer Trilux already has a CO2 footprint for many of its products and is committed to achieve greater efficiency throughout its supply chain. Katrin Discher, Director, Sustainability at Trilux states, “We have a responsibility as a manufacturer to provide as much data as we possibly can so that customers can make more sustainable decisions.”

The circular economy starts with design

According to the Circular Economy Action Plan 2020, “up to 80% of products’ environmental impacts determined at the design phase” and there is growing demand from people, governments, and regulating bodies to address climate change through every industry.

Circularity is defined as designing products to be disassembled into components, parts, or materials that can be reused, recycled, or remanufactured in order to reduce waste and pollution. Designing for sustainability requires a new way of thinking that brings a larger sense of purpose and belief to practice. It means shifting the focus on material use from what needs to built, to the most efficiency use of resources in the circular economy. No product will be recycled if it wasn’t first designed for recycling – yet even those products face end-of-life difficulties.

New approaches to intelligent design automation, such as generative design, have the potential to accelerate the iteration of more innovate products that perform better and last longer. They are also optimised to reduce material used, assembly, and transportation, thereby reducing the amount of waste and energy used during manufacturing.

Asif Moghal, manufacturing industry manager at Autodesk, delivering his keynote at Leaders Conference 2017 – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

The research indicated that more awareness is needed around the true impact of circularity for manufacturing to reduce its carbon footprint. When asked to rate the impact of sustainability initiatives in their industry today, 46% cited ’product energy efficiency’, 39% cited ‘material efficiency & light weighting’ and a further 39% selected ‘product reparability & circularity’.

However, one such company where materials is the core focus of sustainability is Cumbria-based playground manufacturer and international exporter, Playdale Playgrounds. As a research participant, CEO and Managing Director Barry Leahey stated:

“The number one focus for sustainability in the playground sector is on materials, and we’ll start to see governments pushing forward guidelines in tenders in terms of the sustainability metrics of the resources being used.

“There’ll be far greater scrutiny on the constitute components that make up a product, as well as its lifecycle and recyclability. We’ll also see greater emphasis on the use of digital technology that enables greater efficiency in manufacturing, as well as outcomes-driven technology. We believe by focusing on these aspects as a business, we can help drive the sustainability agenda much further in the sector.”

The future of sustainable manufacturing

Covid-19 can serve as a reset button for a green recovery and is an opportunity to accelerate the focus on the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the design and manufacturing industry and beyond.

Reducing energy consumption during production, cutting waste and choosing better, more recycled materials can help the industry reduce its environmental footprint. Combining insights and using data to make better informed decisions early on in the project cycle allows manufacturers to accurately design, measure and uphold a more resilient and sustainable future.

Written by Asif Moghal, Senior Market Development Manager, EMEA, Design & Manufacturing at Autodesk.