As the grip of both COVID-19 and the lockdown response appear to be given way, leaders across business and society are talking about investments in new technology and infrastructure to drive growth forward. All of these investments, of course, require raw materials, which on its own has triggered talks of a new commodities supercycle

While much of this investment is driven by a desire to “green” the economy and drive ESG compliance, the irony is that in order to achieve those less energy and commodities-intensive processes, more resources must be deployed in order to engineer and implement new clean manufacturing systems.

However, in another turn of irony – perhaps taking us back to where we started – these clean manufacturing systems ultimately reduce the energy and commodities needed to produce any given good. By creating less carbon output, less pollution and consuming fewer resources, clean manufacturing systems don’t just give a manufacturer a good name. The savings they offer can actually enhance productivity and competitiveness beyond the investment that’s required, offering a little more padding to that precious bottom line. 

With that in mind, here’s 5 clean manufacturing systems that you can consider in configuring your future investments and achieving your environmental, social and governance goals. 

“Energy-Mild” Processing

While we often associate commodities extraction with the most energy-intensive manufacturing processes, process engineers who oversee these systems in some ways actually have the “cleanest” approach of all.

How is this possible? Well, most often, process engineers use the most renewable resource of all – that of gravity – to drive and convey their resource through processing points and to their final destinations. That kind of approach to energy, one which is always available and always underutilized, is essentially the key to reducing the energy-intensiveness of manufacturing processes and ultimately creating an indefinitely (if not infinitely) sustainable manufacturing ecosystem.

There are a variety of lower-energy processes that are available today which reduce overall temperature and energy requirements to process basic goods and commodities. Most of these processes are driven by solvents, high-performance membranes and catalysts rather than the high-temperature processing, smelting, casting or other means that can accelerate the achievement of a goal but actually impose more total cost than is otherwise necessary.

At the same time, new uses and new approaches to refining core manufacturing commodities – steel, iron, aluminum – can reduce the embodied energy found in many systems. At the same time, de-generalizing many of the most energy-intensive processes (as they relate to heat) and increasing the protection and lifetime of metals or goods with high embodied energy (like steel and aluminum) is essential. Here, new processes are also important, including practices like thermal spraying which relies on spraying melted protective coatings which then dry on a piece of equipment rather than applying a coating and subsequently heating the entire part.

This kind of approach also reduced materials constraints and creates efficiencies. At the same time, the energy recycled from energy intensive processes can serve to reduce the net energy intensiveness of any given process, including solutions like cogeneration which can take the heat and exhaust generated by different processes and turn them into usable electricity through a compact boiler-turbine approach.  

With further signs that the right tax incentives can actually make more extractive industries carbon negative, and smaller scale, more efficient and lighter-weight renewables also promise to augment the energy recovery capabilities and local generation needs of remote primary goods processors. All in all, these less net-energy-intensive processing mechanisms promise to drastically reduce the environmental impact that comes from creating the raw materials we need, but what about the rest of the supply chain?

Cogeneration is but one approach that nets greater energy recovery from primary goods processing. Source: FoodEngineeringMag.

Peer-to-Peer Capacity

The machinery and equipment used by manufacturers are often durable and long-lasting, reducing their net environmental impact. However, unused machinery can equate to a large amount of embodied energy – the energy and resources needed to create it. This poses a problem when it comes to the environmental impact of unused capacity, which can affect considerable waste over the lifetime of a piece of equipment. This waste can be even worse if new and more efficient machines come online that may make older ones obsolete. 

In order to eliminate unused capacity challenges – which bring both environmental and economic costs – flexible systems and new modes of factory organization with the right level of visibility can allow manufacturers to make sure they are optimizing their resources. These approaches can also make it easy to actually “rent out” unused capacity and not only get money back for it but also “spare the earth” of a little opportunity cost. 

At what scale can these systems make an impact? One estimate dated to 2011 showed that unused capacity had a direct cost to manufacturing firms 4.8% of net sales, or $142 billion per year – and equivalent to more than 60% of where total R&D spending was positioned. This may actually be higher, as federal reserve data shows that total industrial capacity has fallen to figures averaging just north of 75%, while that utilization was near 90% in the late 1960s when the measure first came about. 

Total industrial capacity utilization has trended down, even as waste and environmental concerns have risen. Peer-to-Peer Exchange systems may be one of the best ways to incentive efficiency and reduce environmental impact. Source: FRED database. 

While having some slack in the supply chain is never a bad thing, the equivalent of one quarter of total capacity going unused is a source of significant waste – as well as unnecessary environmental cost. 

In response, different types of businesses have already engaged in peer-to-peer exchange systems that permit businesses to earn money from renting out unused machinery while, obviously, enabling businesses who need machinery to use it without duplicating capital investment. While this is economically logical, it is also significantly environmentally advantageous.

As it happens, this may be a case of “what is old is new again”. Maschinenring, a german organization dedicated to the sharing of farm and forestry equipment, has since 1958 enabled hundreds of thousands of farmers to diminish their capital costs and improve utilization. While immobile machinery – like a CNC or a paint booth – might not be as easy to rent, taking care of the sensitivity of your own factory operations through flexible manufacturing systems like containerization and buffer storage can perhaps give you the secrecy your customers value while making the most of the capacity you have on-site. 

Pollutant capture and sequestration

The apex of clean manufacturing is perhaps the “clean room”. Cleanrooms are highly controlled manufacturing areas designed to eliminate waste, contamination and environmental exposure of air particles .5 microns in diameter or larger.

Cleanrooms rely primarily on high-efficiency HEPA and HVAC systems to manage air quality and filter airborne particles, which can include painting, coatings and chemically-sensitive processes like semiconductor or solar panel manufacturing. Because human entry into clean rooms also creates contaminants and adds costs in terms of equipment and managing air quality, robotic and low-maintenance systems are preferred for these facilities.

We’ll get to robots a bit later, but the idea of a closed-loop manufacturing environment – for instance a clean powder coating booth that allows for recycling and reuse of excess coating – are concepts that can be scaled up and adapted to both improve energy generation and decrease the emission of more dangerous pollutants, both from a climate perspective and a local environmental one. 

Cleanrooms require a comprehensive approach to managing airflow, but ultimately these principles can be applied to both emissions and environmentally harmful chemicals. Source: StaticTek.

However pollutions are captured and managed, they are ultimately sequestered by means of three choice processes: combustion, conversion or collection (usually by means of a filter). In primary processes, heat pump systems that power the separation or distillation of solvents can be used to also recover energy through Mechanical or Thermal Vapor Recompression.

Unless a manufacturing process can be entirely contained, there will always be some kind of environmental impact. These are not always harmful, but of course there is an opportunity to recover energy or materials that would otherwise be wasted, it shouldn’t be passed up!

Integrated Data Systems

Industry 4.0 has been a term to watch for many years now in the clean manufacturing space, not simply because of efficiency benefits but also because of the potential that smart industrial systems can more adequately coexist with environmental needs. 

Correct data management and visibility are one of the first and foremost means of improving the environmental impact of manufacturing processes, primarily through the degree of optimization they provide. Optimized production methods focus primarily on improving quality of output and incorporating fewer production steps – instances where object management and Digital Twin technology using IOT or other sensing mechanisms, along with enhanced automation and 3D printing where applicable, can reduce the total need to “manipulate” parts along their way to finished product.

Ultimately, clean manufacturing is about generated a closed loop of data, processes and materials to eliminate the possibility of environmental impacts, much less their “actuality”. Source: SustainabilityGuide.eu. 

Managing systems and process cells at a distance is perhaps one of the most opportune instances where Industry 4.0 practices can reduce environmental costs. Why is this the case? One study has shown that only 13% of energy consumption in manufacturing is used towards productive processes and machines. So much of the costs associated with manufacturing simply come with managing material flow, auxiliary processes like heating, cooling, lubrication and more, as well as heating and cooling environments and keeping them reasonably safe for humans to work in. 

By reducing the direct human footprint on a production line, the need for comfort and accommodation is far reduced and can instead be engineered around machine needs with intermittent (or remote) human participation. This can reduce environmental impacts significantly, but also serve to reduce auxiliary labor costs for matters like health and safety, ultimately delivering more value share to employees while potentially realizing massive productivity improvements through smart choices when it comes to automation. 

Autonomous Skilled Robots

Autonomous robots aren’t just about moving things around or tending to machines – they can actually execute skilled tasks using know-how, robotic reliability and coherent AI-based task planning to achieve higher quality outputs than ever before.

The basic premise is that if robots can be given the ability to perceive and make plans within their environment, they can take goals as defined by a manufacturer and use their capacity – whether as an arm, on a cartesian plane or whatever combination of end-effector and robot system is needed – and then utilize the consistency and reliability robots are known for to maximize the efficiency of your process, no matter what parts or process behaviors you need.

Here a robot powered by autonomous technology generates its own motion programs and toolpaths to paint an aerospace part, achieving precision and flexibility that finally opens the world of robotics to high-mix manufacturers.

These kinds of smart systems are finally possible due to a variety of advances in 3D vision, sensor fusion and AI-based task planning. In this technology environment, it’s finally possible to alleviate the shortage that is seen among the most skilled workers through both disaffection with the same old workflow and the acceleration of Baby Boomer retirements seen in the wake of COVID-19. 

The robotic efficiency, adaptability and environmental benefits can add up fast. The total quality improvements seen with autonomous robots can sometimes reduce rework to effectively zero, while the speed and throughput of existing systems can be matched if need exceeded as parts require it. At the same time, materials, energy and consumables savings can reach 30-40% where total production output is held equal – a true game change for manufacturers, and certainly one for the environment as well.

Omnirobotic provides Autonomous Robotics Technology for Spray Processes, allowing industrial robots to see parts, plan their own motion program and execute critical industrial coating and finishing processes. See what kind of payback you can get from it here, or learn more about how you can benefit from autonomous manufacturing systems.