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Climate change

Equipment management and sustainability

How global businesses use insight and innovation to make their manufacturing processes and assets carbon neutral.

May 23, 2022

In association withSchneider Electric

The carbon impact of the world’s manufacturing industries has held the imagination of climate change activists for decades. The belching factory smokestack was one of the first salient targets of the decarbonization movement, beginning with the passage of the US Clean Air Act in 1970.

Equipment management and sustainability

Today, with ever-dire projections of the impact that global warming will have on sustainable life on the planet, the role that enterprises play in mitigating climate change has come into even sharper relief. Firms increasingly need to demonstrate concrete sustainability goals to maintain customer loyalty and investor confidence. Nine out of 10 Fortune 500 companies publish sustainability reports—nearly 100 have committed to carbon neutrality, and over 70 are committing to Science Based Targets, a greenhouse gas reduction framework established by the United Nations Global Compact and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Decarbonization in the manufacturing process, through improving equipment operations, reducing waste, and making products with less carbon-intensive inputs, is increasingly fitting into global firms’ broader green agendas. But, more work on this clearly needs to be done. In its 2022 Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor, the New Climate Institute reviewed the net-zero commitments of 25 large corporations and found their emission-reduction efforts would only achieve 40% reductions on average, and only three of the companies (none of them manufacturing firms) would achieve 90% decarbonization by their target dates.

Manufacturers have several levers to pull in their efforts to decarbonization. One is to diversify their energy sources away from fossil fuel-based electricity, purchasing from renewable energy producers or developing photovoltaic microgrids to produce their own green power.

Another lever is to accelerate the efficiency of equipment maintenance and process optimization, using improved data, analytics, and Internet of Things (IoT)-based sensors to identify production-asset faults and assess operating conditions with greater accuracy.

A third lever involves modernizing manufacturing processes to reduce processes and the amount of raw materials used during production, as well as decreasing the usage of machinery and improving the performance of existing machinery.

Castrip, a US-based flat rolled-steel processor firm, licenses technology that converts liquid steel into one- to two-millimeter thin strips for use in industrial, automotive, and construction applications. It has dramatically reduced the amount of CO2 emitted when converting liquid steel into thin steel strips by 80% to 90% over traditional methods, thanks to reduced machinery usage and fewer production processes.

Castrip’s director of technology, Walter Blejde, says his company’s core technology innovation, which is about two decades old, has transformed the emissions profile of steelmaking. “A conventional slab casting hot strip mill has massive structures on an energy-intensive production line some 800 meters long,” he explains. “We have removed rollers and other processes and created a strip casting process that pours liquid steel through a single rolling mill only 50 meters long.”

Castrip’s approach has extracted many of the processes that consume energy and generate heat, thus significantly reducing a mill’s carbon footprint. Blejde points out, however, that these process improvements were not explicitly designed to reduce the energy intensity of their producing strip. “The first driver was to make a smaller capacity strip for a niche production plant of half a million tons, which is a pretty good size for even a small developing country in terms of its requirement for sheet steel,” he says.  The carbon-friendliness was a fortunate side benefit, which Castrip has now turned into a core selling point.

The ongoing challenge, however, is to continue to decrease energy intensity. “We've totally removed any need to reheat a big section of steel, but we eliminated that process so there's no scale for further improvement,” says Blejde. “We have reduced the number of rolling mills from six big stands to one big stand, so we've got most of the gains there. Now, there are tools to further reduce the energy consumption in the rolling mill, so we're working on fine-tuning aspects like that, but these gains are small relative to our original big-step changes.”

One area that Castrip has been working on for the last two years is increasing the use of machine intelligence to increase process efficiency in the yield. “This is quite affected by the skill of the operator, which sets the points for automation, so we are using reinforcement learning-based neural networks to increase the precision of that setting to create a self-driving casting machine. This is certainly going to create more energy-efficiency gains—nothing like the earlier big-step changes, but they're still measurable.”

Reuse, recycle, remanufacture: design for circular manufacturing

Growth in the use of digital technologies to automate machinery and monitor and analyze manufacturing processes—a suite of capabilities commonly referred to as Industry 4.0—is primarily driven by needs to increase efficiency and reduce waste. Firms are extending the productive capabilities of tools and machinery in manufacturing processes through the use of monitoring and management technologies that can assess performance and proactively predict optimum repair and refurbishment cycles. Such operational strategy, known as condition-based maintenance, can extend the lifespan of manufacturing assets and reduce failure and downtime, all of which not only creates greater operational efficiency, but also directly improves energy-efficiency and optimizes material usage, which helps decrease a production facility's carbon footprint.

The use of such tools can also set a firm on the first steps of a journey toward a business defined by “circular economy” principles, whereby a firm not only produces goods in a carbon-neutral fashion, but relies on refurbished or recycled inputs to manufacture them. Circularity is a progressive journey of many steps. Each step requires a viable long-term business plan for managing materials and energy in the short term, and “design-for-sustainability” manufacturing in the future.

IoT monitoring and measurement sensors deployed on manufacturing assets, and in production and assembly lines, represent a critical element of a firm’s efforts to implement circularity. Through condition-based maintenance initiatives, a company is able to reduce its energy expenditure and increase the lifespan and efficiency of its machinery and other production assets. “Performance and condition data gathered by IoT sensors and analyzed by management systems provides a 'next level' of real-time, factory-floor insight, which allows much greater precision in maintenance assessments and condition-refurbishment schedules,” notes Pierre Sagrafena, circularity program leader at Schneider Electric’s energy management business.

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This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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