Automate To Achieve Sustainability
EP Editorial Staff | October 11, 2023
Automation in all aspects of manufacturing can play a major role in reaching ESG goals.
By Claire Fallon, ISA
Automation and sustainability can, at first, feel opposed — the more technologically advanced we become, the further away we get from our earth and the preservation of our natural surroundings. In fact, automated processes, systems, and technologies can, and do, have a dramatic impact on achieving our sustainability goals. This is a longstanding contribution of automation, and the following summary of a position paper from the International Society of Automation (ISA), Triangle Park, NC (isa.org), provides an overview of the many ways that automation and sustainability work hand in hand to make our world a better place. Read the full document at isa.org/position-papers.
Lay Of The Land
In recent decades, many governments and corporations have committed to sustainability and environmental practices, with some making further commitments toward science-based targets, carbon neutrality, and net-zero goals. Shareholders and boards are demanding sustainability and social responsibility as key corporate values, in addition to profitability, and Industry 5.0 looms large with a focus on resilient, human-centered, and sustainable strategic direction for industry and government.
Collectively, these types of corporate and policy activities are often referred to as ESG—environmental, social, and governance—and automation technologies and systems can make an impact in each of these domains.
Automation can lead to processes that make more efficient use of materials, thus reducing the resources and energy needed to produce products. Further, as automation technology improves, so too does quality, resulting in less material wasted on poor products and less energy, human effort, and money wasted on rework. As costs fall, manufacturers have access to more capital through higher margins or the ability to be more competitive with pricing.
More precise measurements and advanced automation have helped companies better understand the cost savings and the tools needed to implement recycling programs. In addition, the concepts of refurbish and repair are central to the automation industry, which has always sought to interface larger, older systems with state-of-the-art centralized-control systems.
Organizations looking to implement sustainable automation solutions that prioritize environmental responsibility have a host of options. Implementing energy-efficient technologies is one example, as well as relying on automation to optimize energy usage by managing lighting and HVAC systems. Organizations may also wish to consider using materials such as bioplastics, renewable fibers, recycled metals, and manufacturing processes such as 3D printing/additive manufacturing, which can help cut waste, reduce reliance on non-renewable resources, and minimize energy consumption.
Automation plays a key role in two critical areas of the social pillar of ESG: the safety of those working in an organization and the safety of those around it.
In higher-risk jobs that involve applications that are dirty, dull, or dangerous, automation helps reduce the risks of injury to personnel. For example, advanced sensors help determine whether an application is potentially unsafe or may be able to remotely isolate a hazardous process from people.
Automation can also protect communities that surround an industrial or production site by tightly monitoring and controlling products and emissions. This type of protection takes many forms, such as advanced continuous emission-monitoring systems, spectral gas monitoring for wide-area applications, and water-treatment systems to ensure that hazardous material does not escape a site. This data can be displayed on a continuous basis to drive corrective actions and suitable alerts.
Accountability and transparency are fundamental to the governance pillar of ESG, and automation has a tremendous role to play in surfacing data and offering objective analysis.
Measurement is a great example of how automation can offer immediate, accurate monitoring directly in production, rather than in a laboratory facility. This makes it easier for companies and regulators to monitor for compliance. Data is increasingly available and is transparent to stakeholders, often with a layer of analysis powered by machine learning or artificial intelligence to identify potential areas of concern. This removes the potential for bias in analysis, i.e., where one engineer’s threshold differs from another’s interpretation.
It turns out that automation and sustainability are not strange bedfellows after all, but rather two important partners for improvement of our lives and communities. Organizations and entities that focus their attention on sustainable automation can benefit tremendously. Cost reduction, increased safety, and greater workforce development opportunities are immediately apparent benefits, but leaders must also recognize the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership in a climate where environmental responsibility is fundamental to business success and growth. Automation is a great way to achieve these and many other business goals. EP
Claire Fallon is Executive Director of the International Society of Automation (ISA), Triangle Park, NC (isa.org), a nonprofit professional association founded in 1945 to create a better world through automation. A mechanical engineer by training, Fallon previously worked as a design engineer for Bechtel and served on the board of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and appeals board for Underwriters Laboratories (UL).