2 / 09 / 2021

Will Industry 4.0 lead to Greener and More Efficient Factories?

By 2025 it is estimated that around 25% of industrial processes will be automated, with set tasks processed by machinery using artificial intelligence and advanced programming.

It’s the next step in a series of industrial revolutions for the human race, which started out in the mid-1700’s with the introduction of water, steam and coal powered engineering in the United Kingdom.

Centuries later and industry continues to accelerate towards maximum productivity, this time through automation – but there’s also a need for this productivity to be balanced with environmental responsibility, ensuring that these technological advancements do not come at great cost to the planet.

Our latest article discusses industry 4.0 from that perspective, taking a look at whether automation is leading to greener and more efficient factories by listing both the benefits and hesitations.

What is industry 4.0?

Before we get into the discussion around greener efficiency it’s important to set out a definition on what industry 4.0 actually is.

It is the application of any of the following areas, to industry, for increased productivity at a reduced cost-over-time:

  • Flexible factory automation
  • Cyber-physical systems
  • Internet of Things
  • Sensors
  • Collaborative and cognitive robotics
  • Cloud computing
  • Big data
  • Computer modelling and simulations
  • Additive manufacturing, such as 3D printing
automated factory equipment with screen

How can industry 4.0 lead to greater efficiency within factories?

Introducing such methods can lead to greater efficiency within a factory set-up, but how is this achieved?

Increased energy efficiency

The top line is that machines which get things done at a faster pace will generally need less energy to run than their predecessors did, because the longer a piece of machinery is running, the more energy it is consuming.

Manufacturers are racing to create equipment that slots into optimised and efficient systems. By introducing sensors and advanced robotics to machinery, there is an opportunity to develop mechanisms that shut down activity whenever energy consumption exceeds a predetermined level.

These new technological advances are the result of computer modelling and simulation work. Better software in this department is giving manufacturers the ability to run models and tests to optimise their products with energy efficiency in mind.

With factory operators getting more back from their machinery in terms of big data on performance, businesses are also becoming increasingly able to reflect on, adjust and optimise their production processes for optimum energy usage.

More on big data

Defined, big data is the analysis and use of complex data sets that would otherwise have been too difficult to process using traditional methods.

As greater, more detailed insights on factory performance are becoming readily available through the development of greater technology and systems, operators are able to optimise for pure efficiency. It’s all about maximising factory output, and having the ability to scale production up or down depending on new algorithms and variables.

Social benefits

An increase in automation means less reliance on humans. It’s a big debate, but what we do know is that by taking staff away from the often mundane, perhaps dangerous quality assurance tasks, and by giving them a more comfortable and safer working environment, efficiency and productivity can duly rise as a result.

How can this efficiency lead to reduced environmental impact?

With all of the potential for increased efficiency discussed above, it’s obvious that there’s also potential to reduce the amount of energy that factories consume. The digitalisation of industry creates an opportunity for an ecosystem of sustainable development, with all components of the supply chain integrating to contribute to that sustainability.

On a simple level, factories using more efficient machinery should reduce their energy consumption. If that is the case, then this puts less pressure on energy providers to cater for the ever growing demands and needs of global industry.

The reduction in environmental impact isn’t strictly tied to energy consumption. We must also consider the decrease in manufacturing scrap waste. Not only will machinery be optimised for energy efficiency, but also its ability to minimise unwanted byproducts. This waste can be a drain on resources and harm the environment if it isn’t biodegradable.

Businesses stand to make savings from all of this. They are able to reduce their lead times and increase their energy efficiency, whilst also being able to more accurately plan ahead based on the big data they have at their disposal. Automation can also reduce staff overheads, with technology replacing the human in some cases.

With that in mind, it’s hopeful that businesses will then reinvest some of that saved capital back into their processes with the aim of further increasing their efficiency for environmental purposes. One such way they can do so is by investing in renewable energy sources.

Industry 4.0 technology might enable buildings to be closed-loop for energy consumption and sustainability, as sustainable design and architecture are now conducted with Industry 4.0 technology in mind:

  • Architects now use BIM software to optimise buildings for sustainability
  • Heating and cooling systems can self-regulate for energy efficiency in real-time
  • Sensors and IoT devices will tell the environmental control systems to turn off the lights and air conditioning
  • Waste water can be automatically be filtered and recycled
  • AI systems will continuously analyze data to make real-time adjustments

What do we need to be cautious of?

Through innovative execution, businesses are already beginning to build a strategic advantage around some of the benefits outlined above.

In the interest of a balanced article, we have to consider that industry 4.0 technologies are still in a relatively early phase of their lifecycle. This raises some legitimate concerns.

Economic concerns

It’s very expensive to implement as lots of the technology is emerging, and it takes a long period of time to recuperate the investment costs before it starts paying for itself. As a result, it is very difficult to accurately estimate the financial benefits of automation down to the penny and pound.

Environmental concerns

We’ve talked at great length about industry 4.0’s ability to reduce energy consumption, but this is not guaranteed unless technology reaches the required standard. There is a concern that there could be an increase in electro waste and energy consumption if machinery isn’t developed to best in class standards.

Social concerns

The debate rages on about the threat of unemployment that increased automation could bring. There are also concerns about the human-robot interaction, ie, ensuring that humans are adequately trained to maximise the technology. It is also worth considering the privacy issues surrounding big data.

In summary, industry 4.0 and the concepts that lie within it, has the potential to bring about some real tangible benefits for factories in the United Kingdom. These are benefits that are already beginning to be enjoyed by some early adopters, who are gaining a strategic advantage over their competitors with reduced operational costs and increased efficiency.

However, it is important to recognise that industry 4.0 technology is still early on in its development lifecycle. This means that it is often expensive, and may not be the oven-ready, install-tomorrow answer to business’ prayers.

It is also vital that any businesses looking to automation and technological advancements don’t just pay lip service to the idea of environmental sustainability. It is something that should be embraced and implemented into any factory improvement plans, above and beyond the obvious financial benefits.

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