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Sustainability in Industrial Plants

Once considered an option, sustainability is now a necessity. Not only to obtain environmental benefits, but also economic ones. Let us look at how production can become green, from day-to-day activities to the use of automation.

According to a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in the United States, the industrial sector is the world’s third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about 21% of the total. Today, however, there are several ways in which manufacturing companies can reduce their carbon footprint, adopt green equipment and practices, and become more sustainable.
As environmental awareness grows, companies of all types are more inclined to adopt a sustainable approach, although this is somewhat more challenging for industrial plants due to the nature of their operations: they cannot operate without fuel and energy, and it is often difficult to sacrifice productivity for the sake of sustainability. The key is to find a middle ground and a roadmap for progressive implementation, adopting energy-efficient practices which do not compromise productivity.

Respecting the environment in daily activities

Sustainability is a mental attitude which should be applied to every aspect of business, starting with common day-to-day activities. A starting point could be the preparation of an analysis of industrial processes, identifying opportunities for improvement in ecological terms. For example, where possible, a switch to renewable energy sources such as solar power to run plants should be considered.
Recent announcements regarding nuclear fusion (which could become available as early as the next decade) and the use of hydrogen will make an important contribution to the industry’s green transformation. But stopping at plants is not enough: a comprehensive approach must be implemented extending to offices, logistics, transport and waste management.
Reducing waste is another tangible step to be taken in this direction. When conscious efforts are made to reduce waste in plants, considerable cost savings are usually achieved and energy consumption is reduced, sometimes significantly.
Several areas can then be explored to reduce waste, such as avoiding excess inventory, avoiding overproduction, returning to the well-known concepts of Just-in-time and Kanban, and reducing defects and downtime in production to a minimum.
The use of recyclable materials is also important, possibly choosing materials which reduce environmental impact and do not promote pollution problems. In addition to decreasing the carbon footprint of plants, this also contributes to compliance with environmental regulations. Finally, an area which is often still overlooked when planning a sustainable initiative is product packaging, which instead offers great opportunities for ecological improvement by switching to recyclable materials, for instance.

Analysing energy consumption to identify inefficiencies

Before embarking on energy efficiency measures, it is necessary to know the specific consumption of the business by collecting timely information on the consumption of all equipment and processes. Indeed, a frequent problem is
not knowing how energy is actually being used in the plant, so that inefficiencies cannot be detected.
Today, advanced sensor-based solutions can show in detail how energy is being used at any given time. These analytical tools are also very useful in identifying key points to be resolved in order to improve operational efficiency.
This is reflected in what is known as the energy audit, introduced by Legislative Decree 102/2014, which is mandatory for large energy-intensive companies, but can also be requested by any company wishing to know its consumption and possibly implement energy-saving measures.
The audit makes it possible to understand and assess the company’s situation from an energy consumption standpoint, in order to be able to set up efficiency and sustainability paths. During the audit, data is collected through site visits to verify the organisation of the company and any energy problems, both in production lines and general services.
The data are then processed by the appointed professionals, who carry out a feasibility study in order to implement an energy consumption monitoring system.
The main technological and managerial improvements related to energy efficiency are then identified, assessing their technical feasibility and economic return and the possibility of obtaining Energy Efficiency Certificates (White
Certificates). An energy audit can also be beneficial for companies not legally obliged to do so, in order to reduce energy expenditure, improve environmental sustainability and their competitiveness on the market.

Sustainability allows the achievement of economic and environmental benefits

An increasing number of manufacturers are gaining substantial financial benefits, not only environmental ones,
from sustainable business practices.
Sustainability has therefore become an important objective in business strategy, and in operations aimed at increasing growth and global competitiveness. This trend has gone far beyond the small niche of those who traditionally positioned themselves as ‘green’, and now includes many leading companies in several different
industries. There are many ways in which companies are pursuing sustainability, let us look at the most important ones: increasing operational efficiency by reducing costs and waste; expanding the number of potential new customers, increasingly attracted to green companies, and improving competitive advantage; protecting and strengthening brand and reputation; responding to regulatory constraints and new technological and business
The ways in which companies progress on the road to sustainability are diverse, and involve different actions. First of all, addressing sustainability in a coordinated, integrated and formal way, rather than in a casual, disconnected and informal way.
Focusing on increasing competitiveness and revenues, instead of focusing primarily on cost reduction, risk reduction and efficiency improvement. It is certainly useful to employ innovation, scenario planning and strategic analysis to go beyond compliance. Other valid initiatives include integrating sustainability across business functions, focusing more on the long term, and working in partnership with external stakeholders.

The role of automation for green production

Automation is not only a solution to accelerate digital transformation and increase operational efficiency. It can also be used to improve sustainability. For instance, automation in production allows energy consumption to be monitored and kept under control. As a result, companies can optimise energy loads, use of materials, land use and water wastage. Automated production is therefore inherently sustainable, because it enables the creation and use of processes which minimise environmental impact.
Here are some of the ways in which companies automating production help the environment: data collected are used by manufacturers to ensure the efficiency of their machines; more efficient machines have lower heating or cooling requirements; automation enables shorter cycle times, resulting in reduced energy production.
Sustainable production and automation are two pieces of the same environmental puzzle. Companies which grow and evolve while looking to the future now know that they need to invest in sustainable innovations to become economically competitive. This will lead to new job opportunities and a more stable future for both companies and the environment.

Source: Controllo e Misura by PubliTec

Read also: Sustainability in Automotive: just ambition or real action?
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