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Automation helps manufacturing to become sustainable and energy efficient

Independent Industry Analyst / columnist and Automation Consultant with extensive experience in writing industry and technology trend articles, market research reports, case studies, white papers, and automation & manufacturing IT insights

The global economy depends significantly on the manufacturing industry for job and wealth creation. The rise of England in the 19th century, to the rise of the US, Germany, Japan and the erstwhile USSR in the 20th, to the newly industrialising countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and now China, manufacturing has been the key to a historically rapid phase of economic development, points out the report “The Importance of Manufacturing in Economic Development: Past, Present and Future Perspectives.” Unfortunately however, there has always been a connection between the expansion of the manufacturing industry and exploitation of natural resources that results in environmental degradation. Greater awareness about this connection and its consequences is making manufacturing companies to adopt sustainable manufacturing practices.

Manufacturing industry, which produces goods that meet our wants and needs and contributes to the economic growth, has close linkages with other sectors and as a consequence it has a large multiplier effect on the economy. Every manufacturing job creates 4 or 5 additional jobs either along the value chain or in other sectors and greatly contributes to innovation. Jon Rynn, a visiting scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems and author of the book ‘Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The Power to Rebuild the American Middle Class’, says “it has been the strategic achievement of rich nations to create a high-quality manufacturing sector in order to develop national wealth and power”.

World needs manufacturing and manufacturing needs natural resources

Manufacturing uses resources such as energy, minerals, water, and others that are not unlimited and in some cases depletable. As a consequence of growing population & rising incomes and the resulting expansion of the manufacturing industry, the demand and consumption of natural resources, including raw materials, have been continually escalating. OECD’s (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) report “Material Resources, Productivity, and the Environment,” highlights that while natural resources are fundamental to the global economy and human well-being, the amount of materials extracted, harvested, and consumed worldwide increased by 60 percent since 1980 and eight-fold since early 1900s. This has created formidable challenges for sustainable economic development and industrial growth. Pursuing industrial expansion that is resource efficient has become central to our wellbeing as natural resources are finite and there are serious challenges in meeting the escalating levels of resource extraction in a sustainable manner.

There is thus a need for improving efficiencies in the use of natural resources. Energy is at the root of all economic activities; burning of coal, oil, and gas, the conventional and primary sources of energy, leads to pollution. Developing energy and resource efficient manufacturing practices is therefore central to economic development.

Manufacturing and automation: Interdependence

Resulting from greater awareness about the sustainability issues, there is a global movement towards low-carbon economy. This trend is setting the performance metrics and sustainability benchmarks for industrial companies as they are large consumers of energy and natural resources.

The growth of the manufacturing industry has spurred automation industry’s development and both of them have continually evolved over the years. Just as the manufacturing industry has close linkages with the global economic prosperity, automation has an important role to play in making the manufacturing processes efficient, safe and sustainable.

As it developed, the automation industry has gone through numerous technology-related transformations; in the past pneumatic systems gave place to electronic which in turn was replaced by microprocessor based systems such as PLC, DCS, and SCADA. While growing in tandem with the growth of the manufacturing industry, the automation industry emerged stronger and more resilient and the role of automation systems expanded. They are no longer mere shop floor systems applied to manage health, safety, and environment. As production operations became more complex and tightly coupled with supply chain, demand fulfillment, and such others, automation systems began to share shop floor information with enterprise decision support systems so as to help manufacturing firms enhance productivity, improve quality and efficiencies, control costs, and such others. Looking at the future, the role of automation will further change and expand, as the manufacturing industry gets ready to enter a new era.

Automation ought to come to the center stage

Often, the focus of current discussions on the subject of the new emerging era of manufacturing is on the technology. We hear a lot about Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Cyber Physical Systems (CPS), Cloud Computing, Data Analytics and such others. While robust discussions take place about the connected enterprises of the future, what is not getting enough attention is how sustainability issues will shape the future of manufacturing and redefine the role of automation systems.

Developing sustainable manufacturing practices is the major challenge that confronts the global manufacturing industry. While some of the industries pollute water and land, others are highly energy intensive and thereby contribute to greenhouse gas emissions that pollute the atmosphere. According to the Department of Commerce of the United States of America, sustainable manufacturing is the creation of manufactured products that use processes that minimize negative environmental impacts, conserve energy and natural resources, are safe for employees, communities, and consumers, and are economically sound. Automation has a key role to play in energy conservation, efficient use of natural resources, minimizing the negative impact on the environment, and such others.

Automation systems essentially measure various process parameters, such as temperature, pressure, level and such others, automatically control some of the measured parameters as required, and present the information to the operators. Initially automation systems’ role was to ensure safety of the plant and equipment and in later years their role expanded to include plant performance improvement and optimization and achievement of operational excellence. These business goals were achieved by leveraging the automation systems to reduce operational & maintenance costs and plant downtime through asset management and such others. In addition to displaying process parameter values, alarm conditions, and control actions, information from automation systems were used to automatically generate plant performance information, such as energy consumption, plant efficiency, and overall equipment effectiveness and others. Such information from automation systems was used more for guidance. However, in the emerging era of sustainable manufacturing, automation systems will be used to monitor and thereby ensure that the key performance indicators (KPI) relating to sustainability set by the corporate are met. KPIs may include reduction of energy used, consumption of resources, such as water, greenhouse gas emission, waste generation, and such others. While some of the KPIs may have to be mandatorily met because of regulatory requirements, industrial companies have also realized that they can save costs and improve efficiency by reducing and managing the use of resources. Typical areas where cost savings can be achieved include reduction in waste and the use of raw materials, water, and energy. In addition, by reducing environmental impacts, industrial companies can significantly avoid the cost of compliance. The report released by UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that British manufacturing would save £2–3 billion each year, equivalent to 7 percent of profits by adopting best practices in waste minimization techniques, often with little or no investment. Thus there are good economic justifications for setting sustainability related KPIs that are related typically to emissions to atmosphere, water, & land, and resource use.

How automation helps manufacturing achieve sustainability goals

Globally, Industrial plants use almost one-third of the energy consumed. Energy is also a controllable cost in manufacturing. With the use of automation systems, significant opportunities can be discovered to reduce per-unit-production energy costs as they empower manufacturing companies to identify, control, and optimize energy resources and can generate actionable information for improved decision making. For example, the use of variable speed drives can help in reducing the energy consumption of motors used with pumps, conveyors, fans, and such others. In addition, manufacturing companies can aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve conversion rates, and reduce product rejects through the use of automation systems.

Most industrial processes involve burning of fossil fuels, such as coal or oil to produce heat which in turn is used in the operation of equipment such as turbines, furnaces, kilns, and others. In particular, the electric generation companies, while playing a critical role in our lives and the country’s economy by producing electric power, are also major polluters of the environment. Electric power industry extensively uses automation systems to maximize the combustion efficiency. Complete combustion should take place to maximize combustion efficiency and this occurs when none of the carbon and hydrogen compounds in the fuel are left unburnt. This involves among others proper fuel/air ratio to be maintained so that the required excess air is available for proper combustion to take place. Insufficient air results in incomplete combustion resulting in the formation of undesirable soot and smoke; on the other hand, excessive air leads to heating of the excessive air and lowering of the fuel efficiency. Additionally, combustion also results in the formation and release of pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, soot, and ash into the atmosphere.

The US Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has set specific standards for regulating these emissions as they are harmful to the environment. Automation systems are extensively used to measure various parameters, such as amount of fuel, air, excess oxygen, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, sulfur dioxide, unburnt fuel and maintain the proper fuel / air for achieving combustion efficiency and reduce pollutants. While electricity plays a critical role in sustaining the nation’s economic growth, the unintended by-products of electricity generation, especially the fossil-fired power stations, can have undesirable effects on the environment and public health. Most of these health impacts result from emissions produced through the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), which accounts for bulk of the electricity generation in most countries.

In many process plants, the plant utility systems may comprise of multiple boilers and turbines of varying capacities, whose efficiencies may vary depending on the operating loads and fuel used. The overall utility system efficiency is subjected to a number of constraints and interacting decision variables. In addition, the owner operator may also have the option to purchase power for use or to sell the generated power. Optimization systems are used to help decide on boiler and turbine allocation and electricity purchase / sell decision.

In a large process plants, such as integrated steel plants, energy demand may fluctuate during the course of the day due to switching on or off of various production equipment depending on the production requirements. Automation systems can play an important role in managing the load. Load management systems in industrial plants help reduce peaking of demand and balance the load optimally by appropriate scheduling or balancing. This can help industrial plants to prevent peaks in the use of electrical power during the high consumption portions when tariffs are high.

By measuring various process parameters and automatically controlling some of the relevant ones, automation systems help manufacturing companies to successfully achieve the goals of sustainable manufacturing that include achieving high level of resource efficiencies, reducing energy consumption, and minimizing land, water and atmospheric emissions & pollutants. Manufacturing companies can set benchmarks and KPIs and automation systems can help not only monitor them but also achieve those goals. The manufacturing industry can collaborate with the automation industry to develop solutions to the sustainability challenges and the collaboration will be mutually beneficial. The global automation companies which are looking for growth opportunities may find it expedient to focus on offering sustainability solutions to manufacturing companies.

Time is most opportune for domestic manufacturing

With the right chemistry in place, it is the most opportune time for the Indian manufacturing industry to expand. Presently, India is the fastest growing large-sized economy in the world with a robust demand for industrial goods ranging from airplanes to almost all consumer items and capital equipment whereas many other economies are experiencing slackening demand. Make in India policy initiative that aims at increasing the contribution of the manufacturing sector to the country’s GDP provides additional impetus for the growth of manufacturing in India. As domestic manufacturing scales up, it is important for it to be in the forefront in taking the path of sustainable manufacturing. The global movement towards a low-carbon economy would set the performance metrics and in such an emerging scenario, it is necessary for the industrial companies in India to become future ready. Manufacturing companies in India must take necessary initiatives to emerge leaders in sustainable manufacturing. The icing on the cake is such initiatives will have a positive impact on the company’s bottom line. Even consumer preferences are leaning in favor of socially responsible companies and their product offerings and therefore taking the path of sustainable manufacturing is an imperative and not an option for manufacturing companies in India. While the world needs robust manufacturing industry for job creation and wealth generation, humanity’s destiny and the future of manufacturing industry are closely linked to its success in becoming more efficient in use of natural resources.

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