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The secret to balancing the sustainability tripod

SUSTAINABLE production has never been a more important goal for industry. Companies must comply with increasing regulation and meet end-user demand that goods are manufactured with minimal impact on the natural environment.

Sustainable production encompasses energy and environmental concerns, and addresses reduced use of raw materials, workplace safety, product integrity, and minimisation or reuse of waste products. It is not responsible to continually consume resources in order to just make a profit.

Many industries are ideally positioned to take the lead in finding solutions to the environmental challenges facing the modern world. One way is through active participation in both local and global initiatives that are designed to ensure we can hand over a healthy environment to future generations.

One initiative debated for several years is a ‘price’ on carbon and companies must be prepared for the challenge, and the cost of compliance.

As new demands for environmental accountability are made by governments, industry bodies and end-users, today’s manufacturers must monitor raw material usage, power and water consumption, and generation of waste, in order to operate their facilities in the most environmentally sustainable way possible.

Integrated control solutions, paired with production intelligence software, are essential to balancing the demands of environmental performance and the economic imperatives of operating a business. Such systems give companies the ability to collect data, process it and distribute it to the appropriate people at the right time.

Sustainability metric

The cost of energy is a significant business outgoing and a key environmental and sustainability metric.

Knowing the amount of energy used in the production process is thus an important factor for any manufacturer; the challenge is how to best obtain the required data and act upon it in a meaningful way. Implementing systems to monitor energy usage at all stages of the production process can identify savings.

It is important to know not just how much energy is used but also when it is used. Integrated information-enabled control architectures, that monitor all stages of production, can help optimise processes and manage energy usage to take advantage of off-peak supply and deliver cost reductions.

Such systems can transform a company from a passive energy consumer to a strategic manager of energy resources.

Efficient usage of raw material and ingredients is another aspect of sustainable production. Flexible and scalable plant-wide ‘track and trace’ systems that monitor receipt and usage of all components, through the wide variety of procedures that make up a manufacturing application, can assist companies in optimising their use of natural resources.

This kind of automated data collection requires systems that permit straightforward integration with a variety of plant-floor control, automation and information systems. Many manufacturers have disparate automation controls deployed across their facilities with data residing in a variety of systems.

The ability to access and share the information between all these systems is essential to maximise the benefits that can be achieved.

Clean fresh water is an essential resource and vital to many manufacturing processes and hygiene procedures. Industrial water usage efficiency will also become an increasingly important issue for the mining and resources sector.

There will be a requirement for these industries to account for water usage and how much water is treated and re-used. The ability to monitor and track all aspects of water consumption during operations and provide traceability has become a necessity, particularly in the face of ever-evolving government regulation.

Handling waste

A by-product of utilising energy and consuming natural resources is the generation of waste. The amount of waste sent to landfill is another factor driving the adoption of sustainability strategies. Monitoring emissions and waste generated during processing is integral to a company’s ability to comply with reporting requirements of government programmes.

It is likely that legislation requiring companies to meet the cost of waste disposal will be introduced. Increasingly, manufacturers will need to develop designs and processes that minimise the amount of packing required for the storage and shipping of their products.

There are also processes, both internal and external, that manufacturers can implement to reduce waste. A comprehensive internal waste segregation system, which encourages re-use and recycling, and training staff to follow it correctly, can minimise the amount of material sent to landfill. Integrated monitoring systems will allow companies to identify where processes can be streamlined to further minimise landfill waste.

It is a challenge to produce and deliver goods, from any type of manufacturing process, in a consistently safe and reliable manner. Consumers increasingly are demanding that manufacturers practice social responsibility in supplying goods, running a production plant or operating a mine.

Safety solutions

Stopping a processing plant due to an accident, or use of incorrect components, is expensive both in terms of energy used to re-start equipment and disposal of contaminated or faulty goods.

With the implementation of contemporary safety solutions, manufacturers can allow operators to more safely perform operational tasks while a machine is running and possibly in motion. This helps improve productivity and saves excess energy necessary to power up a machine, which in turn reduces overall energy consumption.

Companies often see compliance with health and safety legislation as an additional cost burden. However, the cost in terms of lost production can often be greater than the purchase price of the appropriate monitoring and controlling equipment.

Training is integral to any successful strategy. If the skills of staff are continually updated, their job performance will improve and safety breaches will be less likely.

Progressive changes

Sustainability needs to be driven from a company’s highest levels. Senior managers who appreciate that there are financial benefits in a sustainability strategy; that companies that do not implement progressive changes are taking bigger economic, brand and regulatory risks, are central to a company’s continued success.

Integrated automation control solutions can enable manufacturers to operate cleaner, safer and more efficiently, helping to continuously protect and fortify their brands, and improve the bottom line. Expansion or remodelling of production facilities should incorporate integrated systems that utilise established, proven, reliable and scalable technologies.

Thought of in this way, a sustainability strategy is a tool to position a company for greater success in the future by delivering cost reductions, and operational processes, that are consistent with growing societal demands for environmental accountability.

[Michael Loke is Industry Manager, Sustainability, Rockwell Automation.]

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