Seven use cases to create sustainable production and carbon neutral processes for a more circular economy

The race towards the carbon-neutral factory and sustainable production processes is in full swing. In accordance with UN Sustainable Development Goal 13, businesses combat climate change and are transforming their manufacturing operations towards net zero emissions. The new growth strategy of the European Union, the European Green Deal, includes key initiatives that shall accelerate the twin green and digital transitions. The combination of lean, green and digital technologies will be key to a lasting and prosperous growth. What instruments are available to the manufacturing community to reach net zero and go beyond?

The manufacturing sector consumes 23% of all global energy. Therefore, a sustainable strategy to reduce energy and waste is a top priority for all manufacturing companies. Industry 4.0 technologies are seen as a lever for the carbon-neutral factory. Germany-based digital association BITKOM has released a study showing that 73 percent of german medium-sized companies see Industry 4.0 technologies as a lever to reduce CO2-emissions. “In industry, we need efficient and climate-friendly production processes - and that only works with digital technologies,” says BITKOM president Achim Berg. But to unlock its full potential for the twin green and digital transition, the application of Industry 4.0 technologies needs an integrated approach. Several initiatives and programs are already ongoing on political, academic and business levels with the aim to consolidate and accelerate the transition towards environmentally friendly production and a more circular economy. 

For example, "The Bellagio process: Monitoring progress in Europe's circular economy" is an initiative taken by the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) and the European Environment Agency (EEA), that drives the transition to a more circular economy.

A circular economy is defined by the full recirculation of resources and zero waste. The value of products, materials and resources shall be maintained in the economy for as long as possible. From a manufacturing point of view, the key enablers for the circular economy are systems and infrastructure that enable products and materials recirculation, characterized by the 5 “Rs”: Reuse, Repair, Redistribution, Refurbishment and Remanufacturing (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: enablers for the circular economy

In the report “Unlocking the potential of Industry 4.0 to reduce the environmental impact of production” published by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the authors extend the principles of the Bellagio process. The authors define a circularity ladder that distinguishes 10 R-strategies to leverage the transition from a linear to a more circular economy. The 10 R-strategies include Recover, Recycle, Repurpose, Remanufacture, Refurbish, Repair, Reuse, Reduce, Rethink and Refuse (Figure 2)

Figure 2: Circularity ladder with the 10 R-strategies

The authors assume that circularity strategies higher up the ladder result in a stronger reduction of material use. Ideally, these materials are more often derived from secondary sources. From a manufacturing perspective, not all strategies depicted in the circularity ladder can be applied at the same time. We recommend focusing on a few selected strategies and use a combined and data-driven approach for the implementation. For example, to successfully implement a combined strategy that incorporates Reduce, Repair, Repurpose, Refurbishment and Remanufacturing it is key to close the loop on material flows. At this point it's important to closely monitor material input, waste output and the reuse of secondary raw materials which is achieved best by using key performance indicators on material consumption and waste streams.

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Selected strategies for manufacturing companies to implement an environmental friendly production

In this post, we introduce seven use cases that implement selected R-strategies for a sustainable production. We consider the following strategies to have the biggest impact on sustainable production processes:

  • Remanufacture and Refurbish: Reuse old products or use parts of discarded products in a new product with the same function.
  • Repair: Repair and maintenance of a defective product so it can be used with its original function.
  • Reduce: Increase efficiency in product manufacture or use by consuming fewer material resources and materials.
  • Rethink: Make product use more intensive, e.g. through product sharing. Transform manufacturing processes, e.g. by using agile manufacturing principles.

Digitalisation and Industry 4.0 technologies can provide the overall architecture and technological platform to enable circularity and the transition to a more sustainable production system. The ability to collect, analyse and make use of data in real-time is foundational for the implementation of such a system. The following use case examples leverage real-time data and digital workflows to connect operators on the shopfloor with the existing machinery and IT systems. This accelerates decision-making and enables energy efficient production processes.

Remanufacture and Refurbish

Use case 1 - Replacement of parts based on data about product usage

Processes such as refurbishment and remanufacturing are data heavy. Remanufacturing of products requires data for informed decisions on replacements of parts and components. Such data may include usage time or maintenance periods, so that the potential for further utilisation can be estimated. Industry 4.0 technologies enable the collection of real-time data along the lifecycle of a product. For example, connected machines allow continuous tracking of machine data along its lifecycle. The usage data can be stored in the digital twin of the machine, along with information about the product’s components or disassembly procedures. This provides the required insights and decision support for refurbishment and remanufacturing processes. It is important to note that such data needs context in order to be understood by all involved parties. Interoperable digital twins with embedded semantics provide the missing piece. For example, the open manufacturing group has jointly worked on open semantic data structures that enable interoperable digital twins


Use case 2 - Predictive maintenance to extend manufacturing equipment lifetimes

Manufacturing operations can be optimised by leveraging the digital twins of all manufacturing equipment. Sensor data from machines are analysed to detect failures and failure types. Based on the combination of real-time data and historical data from connected machines, the machine’s digital twin is able to predict machine failures before they actually occur. By using a Connected Worker Platform, operators can be notified in case predictive action is needed. For example, by using a machine operation app on a smartwatch, the operator receives real-time alerts and gets guidance on how to operate and maintain the machine. Predictive maintenance reduces machine downtimes, avoids damage to machine parts and results in extended machine lifetime, thus saving valuable resources.


Use case 3 - Reduce energy by better coordinating machine operators

To reduce energy and waste in manufacturing operations, companies can either directly improve the efficiency of their machines or address the resource efficiency of their production processes. In many cases, companies are hesitant to invest in new energy-efficient machines and systems, as the benefits of energy reduction are often outweighed by the costs of the new machine itself. Gradually improving the production processes and establishing new efficiency standards are often the more economical path to increase efficiency in manufacturing. Typically, machine set ups, warm-up intervals and change over procedures consume time and energy. By using mobile devices for the assignment of machine operation tasks, manufacturers can flexibly coordinate machine operators, machines and materials. By coordinating multiple operators in parallel, SMED procedures can be implemented efficiently. By synching the required manual activities with material provisioning, changeover times can be minimized. Improved machine operation procedures reduce energy consumption, as machine downtimes are minimized and machines don’t wait in standby for a long period of time. 

Use case 4 - Zero-waste production through in-process quality assurance

By equipping frontline operators with digital devices, a real-time production system can be created that connects humans with machines and IT-systems. Digital work instructions and the ability to collect quality data through in-line non-destructive inspection methods accelerate quality processes. Operators can quickly adjust process parameters in case of deviations and disruptions. With this, the generation of defects at component level can be prevented. Scrap rates decrease and a “first-time-right” approach can be implemented. In turn, this reduces material and energy consumption.

Use case 5 - Tracking of emissions and energy usage

The measurement and tracking of manufacturing related emissions allows more informed decisions. With digital workflows for data collection, the frequency of measurements can be increased, reducing the time between anomalies and reaction or even revealing emissions that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.


Use case 6 - New insights through real-time data 

If you can not measure it, you can not improve it. With a data-driven production system, you can optimize your production based on facts. Aggregated real-time data from all production processes and process mining for manufacturing increases transparency about material and energy usage. This facilitates new insights and is the basis for continuous improvements so that material and energy losses can be minimised effectively. For example, real-time data dashboards that display machine data, human workflow data, as well as findings from process mining applications can help detect material flow anomalies early on, which in turn can help detect failures in products. By enabling operators to feedback process data in real-time with mobile apps, you can trace products along the value chain and identify process bottlenecks and resource drain. A system like the WORKERBASE Connected Worker Platform enables you to directly initiate corrective actions once process disruptions are detected. Fast reactions are guaranteed, so that fewer defective products are produced. In turn, resource efficiency increases and waste is minimised.

Use case 7- Create an awareness culture for sustainable change

Only the combined work of many leads to a change in the world. By increasing transparency about targets and progress, behavioural change of single individuals can be triggered. Small steps and the completion of minor tasks are the prerequisite for a transformational change of an entire organization. Digital applications are very powerful tools to empower employees and facilitate change. For example, by having access to data on energy consumption or scrap rates, employees can review the impact of their own activities. They can learn, improve and even share best practises about how to create energy efficient processes between sites. By allowing employees to find and share improvement opportunities with their smartphones, you can leverage the collective wisdom of your workforce. A system like WORKERBASE facilitates corporate-wide sustainability initiatives by creating a digital backbone with real-time sustainability data dashboards and improvement apps. In addition, the system drives employee empowerment with advanced functions such as gamification or personal performance apps. 

The business value of Green - Lean - Digital

We’re in the age of increasing business and process complexity in manufacturing. Businesses must reduce the environmental impact of production to remain competitive in the future. Efficient and climate-friendly production processes only work with digital technologies. The above mentioned use case examples represent potential starting points for the creation of sustainable factories that are part of a circular economy. Of course, businesses have to balance ecological and economic goals to ensure sustainable success. By combining green, lean and digital technologies, sustainable benefits can ge generated:

  1. Reduce environmental footprint: Reducing scrap-rates, realizing efficiency potentials, shortening lead times and creating CO2 transparency will allow you to create carbon-neutral manufacturing processes.
  2. Create economic benefits: Reduced quality incidents, higher machine utilization and improved productivity will enable you to bring your production processes to the next level  and realize competitive advantages.
  3. Higher employee satisfaction: A connected shop floor allows to create more flexible processes that adapt to your workforce’s needs. You can make the jobs of your employees more attractive and safer, and facilitate personal growth with upskilling and training-on-the-job. In turn, this leads to higher employee satisfaction and retention rates. 

Have we sparked your interest?

Get in touch to find out more about how to implement sustainable and environmentally friendly production processes. We look forward talking to you!


Felix Burgahn, Thorsten Krüger - WORKERBASE

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