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Manufacturers embrace sustainable digital factories amid regulatory push and economic challenges

Sustainability has been a key focus in manufacturing for over two decades, with the industry making notable progress in reducing energy and resource consumption. However, recent global economic challenges have slowed this progress.

“When the market is strong, companies prioritise sustainability initiatives. But when the market falters, they tend to cut back on these efforts to focus on revenue and profits,” Alex West, senior principal analyst for industrial sustainability at Omdia, explains during the ESG Summit at Rockwell Automation’s Automation Fair 2023.

As a result, West noted that manufacturers have fallen behind on their sustainability goals from 2022 to 2023. To advance sustainably while addressing financial concerns, he suggested that companies need to “shift from a siloed approach to an integrated one to avoid potential negative impacts on their operations.”

An integrated approach to sustainability means incorporating these initiatives into the core manufacturing process rather than treating them as separate goals. Andrea Ruotolo, global head of customer sustainability at Rockwell Automation, emphasised that this can be achieved by merging two major trends: sustainability and digital transformation.

This convergence of sustainability and digital transformation is not a future strategy but an imminent necessity. Tom O’Reilly, vice president of sustainability at Rockwell Automation, highlighted the urgency at the ESG Summit, stating, “Regulations are coming, such as the EU Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive. This directive will require all publicly listed companies in Europe to report on their Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions and their targets, with audits. Sustainability reports will soon be as critical as financial reports.”

Creating a sustainable digital factory

Recognising the need to integrate sustainability with digital transformation, Rockwell Automation and Accenture are focusing on developing the Sustainable Digital Factory, where sustainability is embedded in the manufacturing process. Partners involved in this effort include PTC, Microsoft, Johnson Controls, and Purdue University.

“Solving this problem within your own organisation is challenging,” said Andy Kohok, managing director at Accenture. “It’s an issue that requires collaboration, which is why we’ve partnered with other companies.”

In the Sustainable Digital Factory, business operations and sustainability key performance indicators (KPIs) are merged to understand their positive and negative impacts, enabling informed decision-making, explained Kohok. Historically, the industry’s focus on productivity has led to detailed tracking of various metrics, such as overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). Kohok questioned why the same couldn’t be done for sustainability, noting the need to view the intersection of sustainability and productivity. “The assembly line impacts carbon emissions, water, and energy use,” he said. “Our solution, the Sustainable Digital Factory, brings these factors together in a single view.”

A high-level overview of the Sustainable Digital Factory architecture, presented at the Automation Fair ESG Summit, demonstrated how real-time and historical data, from CAD, MES, and SCADA systems to enterprise asset management and ERP systems, can be analysed with AI and provided to users with context against sustainability scorecards. KPIs such as total manufacturing cost, OEE, line and plant throughput, energy utilization, water use, waste, and emissions are delivered through a unified interface using persona-based KPIs.

Technology suppliers highlighted in this architecture include Rockwell Automation, PTC, Cognite, and Microsoft Cloud. Kohok added that this architecture also encompasses security operations, data and model governance, and compliance with business and regulatory rules.

“Improving your production line should allow you to predict its impact on sustainability,” Kohok said. “Plant supervisors need to know which assets they’re using for efficiency to make informed decisions about productivity and sustainability.”

Ruotolo noted that companies effectively integrating sustainability into their digital transformation are known as “twin transformers.” According to Accenture, these companies are 2.5 times more likely to be top performers in the future.

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