Industrial Automation and Sustainability

When discussed in the context of sustainability, the average person might not think of industrial automation as ‘sustainable’. After all, when we think of industrial automation our brains turn to the worst thoughts. We think of dirty machines sucking up enormous amounts of energy while being in factories outputting copious amounts of waste. However, recent decades have shown companies moving towards sustainability. Not just because of environmental issues, but also as a means to cushion the cost of manufacturing.

As the world continues prioritizing sustainable practices, industrial automation has emerged as a potential solution for reducing environmental impact. However, there are concerns about whether industrial automation in general is sustainable.

What is Sustainability?

What do we mean by “sustainability”? According to the United Nations, sustainability is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In short, sustainable practices should not harm the environment in ways that can obstruct future generations from thriving.

Common Sustainability Concerns

One major concern is the energy consumption of automated systems. Automated machines require significant amounts of energy to operate, especially during the initial stages of setup and installation. This high energy consumption leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to climate change. Additionally, companies design automated systems to operate at full capacity, regardless of the actual product demand. This can result in overproduction, leading to a waste of materials, energy, and resources.

Another concern is automation is the displacement of human workers. Automation usually results in job losses for human workers. This is especially true when performing repetitive and monotonous tasks. This not only affects the livelihoods of these workers but also has social implications. Extreme unemployment and income inequality can lead to social unrest and economic instability.

The Road to Sustainability

The direction of sustainability in industrial automation needs plenty of improvement. However, current trends show a shift by companies toward a sustainable goal. This includes things like reducing waste, improving energy efficiency, and safety conditions for employees.

When talking about efficiency, companies using sensors and software in manufacturing processes can reduce material waste. They achieve this by accurately measuring and cutting materials to exact specifications. This reduces the amount of scrap material wasted and lowers the overall environmental impact of the manufacturing process. Additionally, automated systems can optimize production schedules and reduce downtime, resulting in less energy waste and lower carbon emissions.

When people talk about employees regarding sustainability in industrial automation. They often think of job security as the thing to fear when it comes to automation. However, when discussing sustainability, employee safety often gets left out of the conversation. Keeping healthy and uninjured employees also counts as sustainability. Automation allows machines to complete the most dangerous tasks. This reduces the risk of injury or death to workers. Companies can use automated safety systems to detect potential hazards and shut down machinery if necessary.

Regarding environmental sustainability, having more efficient manufacturing does help stave off environmental impacts. It also has more efficient logistics that can result in better sustainability. Automated vehicles can optimize routes, reduce fuel consumption, and lower emissions by avoiding traffic congestion and reducing idle time. This not only benefits the environment but also saves time and money for businesses. Additionally, automated warehouses can reduce the need for large, energy-intensive storage facilities. This lowers the overall environmental impact of the supply chain.

The Outlook

The general consensus seems to be that industrial automation has the potential to be a sustainable solution. Especially if implemented responsibly and with consideration for the broader social and environmental implications. While there certainly exist concerns that need addressing. The overall evidence suggests that automation may be a key tool when pursuing long-term sustainability.

Updated on April 25, 2023 by Ken Cheng

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