Transitioning to Sustainable Practice

At a European level, I have the feeling policymakers want to do a lot in the area of circular economy. We want to have more sustainable businesses in Europe. But with the existing (growth) mindset, even if we do it in a green way, manufacturing is not sustainable.


Sustainability as the Goal and not the By-Product

Better sustainability performance is the key to reach a more conscious, Triple Bottom Line outcome of I4.0.

I4.0 and sustainability has gained momentum in academic, managerial and policy debate, however most action stops here. While I4.0 has the potential to support sustainability performance – this is not a given, with the risk of increased waste production and higher energy demand also a very possible reality if a conscious and holistic approach is not taken.

Now it is necessary to build direct links between I4.0 and its impact on the Sustainable Development Goals. At the same time, manufacturers should act critically upon unintended consequences and tensions that may arise within this transformation. These actions are important to ensure equal efforts across all three areas of the Triple Bottom Line are taken, rather than seeing the common example of people and the planet as only secondary to profit.

Systemic Development of Circular Economy Operations

The systemic integration of I4.0 technologies is essential for developing a sustainable circular economy.

The circular economy (CE) is building momentum, as research shows strong potential for I4.0 technologies in supporting the complexity of circular business models. I4.0 approaches can support CE aspects such as better transparency and decision-making, improved cost and flexibility, eco-design, added business value, reverse logistics and extended product/material lifetimes. However, further research and more action is needed to achieve such sustainable operations in practice.

Most essential to success is understanding how to integrate I4.0 technology for the systemic and sustainable implementation of CE operations. This is required for monitoring and limiting the occurrence of circular rebound effects – where the circular economy results in an overall increase of production to partially or fully offset any sustainable developments.

Sustainability Metrics = Business Development

A positive correlation is growing directly between sustainability metrics facilitated by I4.0.

I4.0 technologies can have a positive impact on sustainable business performance. The industrial IoT in particular is helping to make smart factories sustainable through an approach that reduces energy consumption, optimises costs and encourages cleaner environments.

How might manufacturing further support positive development through sustainability evaluation tools for business performance? By utilising large and robust data-based (facility) layouts, it could be possible to advance businesses while clearly mapping all three sustainability aspects. For example – energy consumption for the environment, material handling for economics, and maintenance and hazard management for social sustainability.