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Going Green With Manufacturing: The Path Towards Sustainable Automation

There’s no question we’re in the midst of a climate crisis. As officials from all over the world struggle to create a plan to mitigate the effects of climate change, the causes are still points of contention. The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic paved the way for a brief but impactful decline in carbon emissions. Once the world reopened, however, it brought climate challenges back to square one. The pandemic also highlighted a stark drop in available goods due to a labor and supply shortage in which the effects are still being felt. Factory automation is a solution for the lack of labor, but how sustainable is it? At a glance, it might be easy to write off automation as energy-consuming, but this doesn’t tell the whole story.

Like most technologies, automation requires careful attention and planning to maximize its efficiency. If left unchecked, it could lead to different forms of waste. For example, in paint spraying procedures, human labor will account for a certain amount of waste. When fully autonomous robots execute that same task, the waste should be greatly reduced. If this autonomous robot is using iffy software or is poorly programmed then it could waste even more paint all while consuming large amounts of energy to complete a job in mediocre fashion

How Bad Can It Get?

The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) developed a board that listed the best- and worst-case scenarios for the environmental impacts of automation technologies. The IISD breaks down different categories of automation categories and lists the impact each sector has on the environment based on greenhouse gas emissions, resource usage, and ecosystem usage.

The worst-case scenarios here are predictable. If left unchecked, the environment could have significant adverse consequences in fields such as autonomous transport and the Internet of Things. Essentially, if resources aren’t properly managed, then it’s only normal that waste could become an issue.

Resource management is essential to the preservation of the environment. The chart predicts that in a best-case scenario, artificial intelligence – along with autonomous transportation and the Internet of Things – would have a “significant positive impact” on the environment. Again, these are purely predictions from a single source, but they aren’t unattainable. If advanced technologies, like nuclear fusion, can advance to a point of universal adoption, then these predictions will be closer to reality.

Figure 1. Showing a best- and worst-case scenario of greenhouse gas emissions, resource use, and ecosystem use for various sectors where autonomous systems can be implemented (via Dusik et al.)

Manufacturing and Its Impact On the Environment

In an article published by Al Jazeera in 2021, they state that “manufacturing – especially of the cheap construction staples steel and cement – accounts for about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.” In the United States, manufacturing processes consist of 25% of the country’s energy use. Manual methods of manufacturing are quickly becoming archaic and will require an overhaul towards automation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Inefficient technology is one factor behind the world’s overconsumption of technology. In 2013, a report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that the world’s 14 billion online electronic devices had wasted around $80 billion every year. Though the IEA lacks an update nearly a decade later, it’s fair to assume that this number hasn’t gotten any better.

New technologies are hoping to make energy consumption all the more sustainable with different parties advocating for different methods such as solar-powered electronics and the aforementioned nuclear fusion. Neither of these forms of energy is ready for widespread use – in fact, nuclear fusion is still very much in its infancy – but that doesn’t mean advances in other sectors won’t help mitigate the effects of climate change.

Figure 2. Coal- and oil-based electricity generation cause the most greenhouse gas emissions while hydro, wind, and nuclear all have minimal impact (via Let’s Talk Science 2020).

What the Research Says

A research paper titled “A global horizon scan of the future impacts of robotics and autonomous systems on urban ecosystems,” written by a number of authors including Mark A. Goddard and Zoe G. Davis, detailed how exactly a robotic autonomous system (RAS) could affect the environment down the line. While they touch upon the ecological benefits of factory automation – more on that later – they also specified how automation could benefit entire cities and ecosystems.

In short, automation could lead to better use of land, especially in dense cities, like Dubai, which could lead to less space being used for transport infrastructure. They predict that if automation becomes widespread, then fewer people will need cars, paving the way for reduced roads, car parks, and driveways. They add that automation in buildings could regulate energy consumption and reduce heat loss.

With these services becoming more eco-friendly, “RAS will reduce human-nature interactions by, for example, reducing the need to leave the house as services are automated and decreasing awareness of the surrounding environment while travelling.”

While the research goes far more in depth about topics such as managing invasive species and biodiversity, it’s clear that, if properly implemented, RAS could be a game-changing service provided to the world.

These long-reaching effects are not just for cities and communities, they will also immensely benefit manufacturers who will be able to both augment productivity and reduce their carbon footprint.

Considering a sustainable factory will not only benefit the environment, but will benefit your savings in the long run

How Sustainable is Automation Really?

The world of automation is vast. There are many different ways an autonomous system can help the environment. Robots can be programmed in empty fields to plant trees. Self-driving electric cars will one day be commonplace, not only eliminating the need for gas refuels but also greatly reducing noise pollution as cars will be mostly silent and obnoxious honking from irritated drivers. While these are more day-to-day and simpler options, enabling autonomous robotic systems in manufacturing plants can also go a long way toward reducing their carbon footprint. Here are some examples of how automation can contribute to the fight against climate change:

Reduced Energy Consumption: Fewer humans in the factory means you can downsize and use less space in the factory. With less space means heating and air conditioning costs will decrease. As well, autonomous robots will take less time to complete a task, therefore using less energy.

Reduced Waste: With human labor, it’s normal to expect waste when performing certain tasks like paint spraying or powder coating. A fully autonomous robot will know exactly how much of each resource to use, minimizing waste. It will also reduce reworks, touch-ups, and complete revisions.

A reduction in both energy consumption and waste will not only benefit the manufacturers’ costs but will also contribute to a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, eventually minimizing a factory’s carbon footprint. As well, if new forms of energy, like nuclear fusion, become usable, then it will improve a factory’s level of sustainability as well.

Figure 3. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from industry make up for nearly a quarter of the U.S.’s total GHGs in 2020, signifying an urgency to move towards sustainable forms of energy. (Via EPA)

Getting There: The Road to Sustainable Manufacturing

The world is slowly but surely taking steps to ensure our collective carbon footprint declines. With autonomous robotics systems, manufacturers can directly contribute to that. While it might not be the sole reason manufacturers will switch to a fully autonomous robotics system, they can find some solace in knowing that adopting these systems won’t only be beneficial to their company, but to future generations who depend on the Earth’s wellbeing.

 

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, you can move towards a fully autonomous robotics system that is as practical as it is ecological. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before. Contact us to learn more

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