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August 2014

Part 3: Is automation a better environmental option than the alternative? Can we keep people at work while also saving the environment? (Article Series)

In our latest article series, Automation GT takes a look at the role played by manufacturing and automation in climate change throughout history. Rachel Greenberg writes technical and marketing content for Automation GT.

Because automation depends on the innovative minds of scientists and engineers, it is very likely that as the conversation continues on climate change, that many engineers and scientists will go out of the way to ensure that their machines are efficient and that they can be easily powered through alternative energy sources.

It is then worth distinguishing in what ways manufacturing can be preserved and what scenarios promise us the cleanest and most environmentally sound industrial situation.


In what ways are manufacturers choosing to protect environment?


In PwC’s most recent poll of CEOs, the numbers reflect an omnipresent awareness of environmental issues on the parts of industrial manufacturing CEOs. According to the poll, 70% of industrial manufacturing CEOs are concerned about the uncertain costs of energy. In addition, 60% of industrial manufacturing CEOs (as opposed to only 46% of CEOs in other sectors) see the roles of resource scarcity and climate change as major transformative trends for the coming years.quote2

It makes sense that environmental problems would weigh so heavily on the minds of industrial manufacturers as changes in cost and availability of energy and raw resources can have direct and significant impacts on their operations, while for other CEOs, these effects will likely be only secondary.

And beyond the moral impetus to take climate change seriously, industrial manufacturing CEOs face a real fiscal concern from climate change. Natural disasters resulting from climate change can have a huge economic impact on companies as their shipping and production cycles are disrupted. Rising temperatures make labor intensive work extremely difficult. Production of food and many other natural resources become more difficult and expensive with changing environmental factors.

Right now, industrial manufacturing CEOs are limited in the ways in which they can address their environmental concerns. However, here are a few ways in which manufacturers have attempted to limit their impacts on the environment:

  • Increasing use of renewable energies with lower carbons footprints: As some manufacturers have designed and constructed new facilities, in recent years there has been a growing interest in reducing or eliminating the need for fossil fuels in factories. However, manufacturers are still accountable for the fossil fuels used in transportation of their source materials and finished products, as well as the environmental impact of their commuting employees.
  • Doing more with less: Many manufacturing companies are trying to identify ways to eliminate waste and excess from every step of their production processes. For example, some water bottle manufacturers have identified ways to decrease their plastic use by changing the shape of the bottle, or by converting to biodegradable materials. Companies are also finding ways to get by with fewer employees. Options in automation allow manufacturers to produce more goods in far less time. Some manufacturers have even been able to completely automate their shop floors as well as some of their administrative processes. In this way, the company can reduce the number of employees who need to drive to and from work each day. On top of this, companies that have been able to completely automate their factory floors can run “lights out” manufacturing. They can also reduce their use of air conditioning, running water, and other standard workplace resources. While automation machinery can require large amounts of energy to run, if the company has been able to convert to a low carbon energy solution, the machine may end up having a relatively low environmental impact.
  • Using local and sustainable products and doing more to become a “small-scale” manufacturer: Today, there is increasing consumer interest in buying goods that have been produced locally by craftspeople and from sustainable resources. Manufacturing operations that try to use local goods and resources are likely to have lower carbon footprints than companies that need to import and export large quantities of materials. However, if a company is inclined to use more craftspeople, they won’t be as likely to take advantage of the environmental benefit in automation.

How can we keep people at work without sacrificing the environment?


Since the Industrial Revolution, and perhaps even before then, humans have represented the greatest force of accelerated change for the environment. However, regardless of the environmental impact associated with keeping people fed, housed, and working, as long as we are continuing to perform work as a society, we should be performing work that helps people maintain or improve on a certain quality of life (to a limit). For that reason, it becomes difficult or impossible for manufacturers alone to always make the decision that is best environmentally because it may not be as good for employees.

If a manufacturer employees 200 employees in one factory, s/he might take into account the homes, vehicles, food, and other goods consumed by each employee and their dependents as an indirect environmental cost for their factories. If they are seriously trying to decrease the environmental impact of their facilities, all of these environmental costs would be relevant. And because the American socio-economic system depends so heavily on cars, manufacturers should be particularly aware of the impact of the commute on the environment.

From the beginning of its lifecycle, a car has a huge environmental impact. A single car will require about 1,129 gallons of gas just in the production stages. However, as much as 90% of a car’s environmental impact will come from its usage, not its production. By themselves, vehicles produce about one-third of the air pollution in America.

And because the layout of the American workplace has required that most people use a car, there are now far more cars on the road today than there were even ten or twenty years ago. Today, the average commuter will spend about 38 hours a year stuck in traffic (the number gets as high as 65 for commuters in Washington D.C.), and more time commuting than on vacation. This means that commuters are buying an additional 2.9 billion gallons of fuel each year, and emitting 56 billion extra pounds of carbon dioxide through idling.

Over 86% of the American workforce drives to work every day, while only 5% use public transportation. In most parts of the country, public transportation is unavailable or is an unfeasible method of transportation for many employees, though in many parts of the world, trains offer a huge advantage over other methods of transportation in terms of environmental impact. For example, a plane ride from London to Paris emits about 244 Kg of carbon dioxide while the same trip made by train emits only 22 Kg of carbon dioxide. This becomes an especially important statistic for companies with employees who regularly need to travel by plane to events and meetings. In fact, estimates suggest that aviation alone may account for as much as 3.5% of all human-caused climate change.

But as previously stated, until we experience a socio-political shift in frame of mind that will promote the use of renewable energies and will decrease the consumption habits of those in developed countries, there is little that manufacturers can do on their own to decrease their factory’s environmental impact simply through having employees. They can make certain choices such as allowing more employees to work from home more frequently or full-time, they can limit the amount that their employees travel for work through teleconferencing and limited attendance at unnecessary events, and they can promote and even subsidize the use of alternative energies at home and at work. But without further governmental support for a shift full shift away from fossil fuels, the impact of these changes will be limited.

Part 1: The Industrial Revolution, Climate Change, Global Environmental Problems, and Manufacturing

Part 2: Does automation provide any environmental aid? How can innovation lead to a better environmental picture?

Part 3: Is automation a better environmental option than the alternative? Can we keep people at work while also saving the environment?

Part 4: How do global politics and other factors affect the environmental situation of manufacturing?

Part 5: What can we conclude from all of this, and what can everyone do to contribute to a greener world? 


August 2014

Part 2: Does automation provide any environmental aid? How can innovation lead to a better environmental picture? (Article Series)

In our latest article series, Automation GT takes a look at the role played by manufacturing and automation in climate change throughout history. Rachel Greenberg writes technical and marketing content for Automation GT.

In Kasa’s essay, referenced in our last article, Kasa makes the point that when we develop as a technological society, we hope that our new technologies in each era will provide address of the environmental issues of the industrial era that preceded it. If innovation is meant to do anything, it should be addressing things that compromise and complicate our own welfare. It is in our own best interest to innovate in such a way that we are protecting, not damaging, our environment.

However, as Kasa notes, “As new industrial revolutions often supplied technologies that eased existing environmental problems, this relief was often only partial. Exploiting the benefits of new technologies for environmental improvements has always been dependent on complimentary socio-political changes.”

Indeed, the drive to produce technologies that can contribute in a significant way to easing climate change and other environmental problems relies heavily on funding and research interest, which in turn rely on popular interest. Fortunately, popular interest is beginning to turn in favor of projects that support environmental change.

Thus, it is worth looking at the projects that already support environmental change and the ways in which industry actually benefits our environmental situation.


Renewable Energy, Alternative Economies, and Innovation


As is likely apparent from the first article in this series, industry can damage the environment in the following key ways:

  • Burning of coal and use of oil create air pollution.
  • Reliance on finite supplies of oil and coal for energy have sparked unsustainable hunts for new sources of energy. The methods by which resources are located, extracted, and transported have large environmental and human costs. In addition, even with “clean” fuels that do not pollute the air as much, these fuels virtually always contribute in some way to global warming.
  • Manufacturing processes that require lots of use of chemicals (including factory farming) contribute to pollution of surrounding bodies of water, and may also put dangerous pollutants into the air, soil, and locally grown food.
  • Manufacturing with low overhead cost has given rise to a widespread consumerist culture. Coupled with a rising population, this trend has created a dramatic and extreme need for goods and resources. Depending on the materials, labor, and resources needed to create a particular good, this can represent a significant total environmental cost between locating, mining, refining, transporting, and processing materials.


While we have reduced air pollution as factories have come to rely less on wood for fuel, today fossil fuels represent one of our greatest obstacles against achieving a carbon-neutral economy.

In 1949, American geophysicist M. King Hubbert predicted that our use of fossil fuels would peak from 1970, and from that point, commercial and industrial use of fossil fuels would be on the decline. Of course, as we have seen, by the year 1970 fossil fuels had become a cornerstone of our way of life in the developed world, and efforts to decrease our dependence on oil and coal would prove monumental.

The most viable and most frequently discussed alternative energy sources are nuclear, solar, and wind power. However, in each case, there have been barriers, either social or practical, that have prevented manufacturers from embracing these energy sources outright.

Nuclear power continues to be available only in certain areas. Each time disaster strikes as a result of human error in nuclear power (as most recently in Fukushima), the public tends to lose its taste for nuclear power for some time. However, according to EDF Energy, nuclear power plants produce as little as “16 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent for each kilowatt-hour of electricity it generates (gCO2/kWhe)” compared to 1001 gCO2/kWhe for coal power plants.

Solar power and wind power boast low carbon rates of 22 gCO2/kWhe and 12 gCO2/kWhe respectively. And some companies have made recent success with alternatively fueled factories. For example, last year Apple announced plans to construct a solar powered plant in Arizona.

Consider the numbers below based on data from Wikipedia:

Type of Power Emissions in gCO2/kWhe
Hydroelectric 4
Wind 12
Nuclear 16
Biomass 18
Solar thermal 22
Geothermal 45
Solar PV 46
Natural Gas 469
Coal 1001


It is the same type of scientific innovation that imagined the means of industry and automation as imagined this variety of alternative energy sources to combat our reliance on fossil fuels. However, if scientists have given us perfectly good means of reducing our carbon footprints through manufacturing, why have we failed to pursue these options on a wider scale?


The Role of Population Growth


There are an approximate 7 billion people living in the world today. Simultaneously, the average person in the developed world now tends to live longer and to expect more in terms of goods and services. This is good from an ethical standpoint: we are doing a better job at guaranteeing a basic quality of life for a larger percentage of the world.

However, by current standards the average American would require approximately 9.6 hectares (24 acres) of land “required for carbon sequestration, production of resources, and assimilation of wastes (not including pollution and water).” A sustainable amount is closer to 2 hectares per person.

Countries including the United States, China, India, and Mexico continue to grow, and while these are some of the countries that people often consider when thinking of global population growth, the countries with the highest rates of growth are actually Uganda, Nigeria, and Bangladesh. In fact, most population growth occurs today in Africa and Southern Asia. In some of these countries, populations may even triple in the coming years.

This is a common phenomenon in countries experiencing increases in wealth and stability: populations which had otherwise been relatively low will grow rapidly for a number of years before leveling out at a more sustainable population. However, with the definition of what it means to achieve basic subsistence ever growing more complicated, we will likely end up with a very large number of people who expect a very high quality of goods including cars, which represent a very serious economic toll, and foods that because of our unsustainable farm factory methods, will also create a significant environmental burden.


Economic Factors


In a very general way, manufacturing and industry tend to give us several things which, when considered in a void, seem unequivocally good:

  • Greater access for more people to cheap goods including food, clean water, and medicine.
  • Lower infant and childhood mortality rates and eventually longer lifespans as well.
  • Better likelihood that more people will be able to get at least a basic education.
  • Greater access to transportation and industry usually means more people can get jobs which contribute to better local economies, better family finances, and higher personal feelings of purpose and job satisfaction.
  • A stronger local economy is more likely to bring greater likelihood that more people will be able to reach the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, including many of the requirements for self-actualization and esteem: creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, acceptance of facts, self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, and respect by others.
  • Decrease of highly stratified local class systems. For example, in the US, because a very large number of people make fairly similar incomes and because goods are so widely and cheaply available, in 2009 as many as 83% of people considered themselves middle class or upper-middle class.

Henry Ford was a revolutionary in his industrial design that ensured that all of his employees would make enough to be able to afford the cars that they manufactured. This was one of the first steps towards the creation of the American working class and middle class, and the creation of the American consumerist culture. It is very important that the product in question was the car, which in many ways contributed to the popularity of the suburb, which reinforced a need for a car.

Eventually, we managed to develop an economy that was entirely dependent on fossil fuels. We have factories that run on fossil fuels producing goods that require fossil fuels, which require workers living in houses that run on fossil fuels, traveling to work with cars, buses, and trains that require fossil fuels, and buying goods and foods that require fossil fuels for transportation and production. And with more people all over the world living longer and having more children who live longer, we need evermore goods to support them, which requires a still greater investment of energy and resources.

Divorcing ourselves from fossil fuels is one of the most important things we can do to build a more sustainable manufacturing industry, but because fossil fuels are so tightly interwoven with our economy on so many levels, it is virtually impossible to simply remove them. Rather, the best we can do is slowly remove them, one at a time, from our homes, cars, and factories.

Part 1: The Industrial Revolution, Climate Change, Global Environmental Problems, and Manufacturing

Part 2: Does automation provide any environmental aid? How can innovation lead to a better environmental picture?

Part 3: Is automation a better environmental option than the alternative? Can we keep people at work while also saving the environment?

Part 4: How do global politics and other factors affect the environmental situation of manufacturing?

Part 5: What can we conclude from all of this, and what can everyone do to contribute to a greener world? 



August 2014

Part 1: The Industrial Revolution, Climate Change, Global Environmental Problems, and Manufacturing (Article Series)

In our latest article series, Automation GT takes a look at the role played by manufacturing and automation in climate change throughout history. Rachel Greenberg writes technical and marketing content for Automation GT.

The advent of large-scale manufacturing and industry changed the world in many ways. While it has ultimately given us access to goods, services, and a quality of life that would otherwise be impossible, its blessings have been mixed and unevenly distributed. One of the major negative impacts of industry has been in the pollution and environmental side effects that for many have become synonymous with manufacturing.

We now know that the Industrial Revolution, the period in the 1800s in which industrial manufacturing dramatically increased in prevalence and impact, contributed to long-term environmental change the true scope of which was unpredictable for Victorian-era manufacturers. Today, it is of dramatic importance that we consider the continued environmental impact of manufacturing of all types, as well as the persisting culture of consumption that arose from this boom of industry.

At Automation GT, we consider environmental protection to be one of our highest priorities and we hope to encourage others to consider their own abilities to decrease their environmental impact and then take steps towards causing actual environmental improvement. In this spirit, we are taking a look at the environmental history of automation and industry, the areas where we can stand to improve, and the overall picture of environmental damage as related to manufacturing and industry.


The Historical Relationship Between Industry and the Environment


In an article for the Center for Advanced Studies, Sjur Kasa provides an interesting breakdown of the different eras of the Industrial Revolution and the feature environmental problems that they produced.

He writes that in the first years of the Industrial Revolution, spanning approximately from the years 1780 to 1848, major industries focused on cotton spinning, iron products, water wheels, and bleach, and depended on waterpower and coal. The major damage done during this period was in the creation of the infamous slums of the industrial age, and in the beginning of the smog problem that was of special note in England. We also began to see the depletion of forests beginning in this age.

The next fifty years saw the advent of the steam-powered engine. Notable industries included railways and rail equipment, steam engines, and machine tools. These industries continued to rely on coal, which ultimately led to increases in smog.

Following this, we began to see increased reliance on electrical powering based on coal sources for industrial machinery. Industry switched to the production of electrical equipment, heavy engineering, heavy chemicals, and steel products. Though at this time we began to see some easing on the burdens placed on employees and on urban air pollution, we also began to see an increase in water pollution as a result of the growing chemicals industries.

By 1943 and up through the present day, we see the era of “motorization of transport, civil economy and war.” Industrial energy continues to come from electricity based on coal, as well as nuclear energy in some places. The first world also begins its reliance on oil as society. Especially in America, the image of automobile ownership becomes a sign of personal financial comfort and stability, and is seen as a necessity of the new and growing suburban life. Industry begins to focus on automobiles and other transportation products including tanks, engines, and aircraft, as well as refineries of various types. At this time, we begin to face increases in smog, acid rain, climate change, and radiation. However, quality of life in the first world takes a dramatic jump for the better.

Kasa argues that today, we are on the verge of a new Industrial Revolution: that of the “computerization of the entire economy” which could ultimately lead to the “decoupling of energy use and production/consumption.” We can only try our best to make predictions on the environmental impacts from technologies still to be found, but with our improved knowledge on the environmental impact of our consumption habits, it is necessary that we make this decoupling of energy use and production a cornerstone of our future economy.


Damage Done and Solutions Found


As is evident in Kasa’s paper, at each different era of the Industrial Revolution, we faced distinct environmental problems that arose from the specific nature of the goods produced and the energy consumed.

However, it has frequently been the case that once we become aware of the damage we are doing, that we take steps to solve the problem and stop or at least decrease the damage. We can hope that we as a people will be able to take similar actions with our current environmental problems.


Air and Water Pollution

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the most evident environmental problem was widespread water and air pollution. In England, serious cholera and typhoid outbreaks became commonplace due to waste and sewage pumped into the Thames and other waterways. The Metropolis Water Act of 1852 was a first step towards decreasing the effects of factory runoff on English waterways, but pollution from sewage persisted into the 20th century.

In America, water pollution has continued to present a significant problem. In 1969, when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire due to the chemicals in the water, the American public began to pay more attention to the issue and in 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. However, as recently as 2006 “more than 62 percent of industrial and municipal facilities across the country dischared more pollution into U.S. waterways than their Clean Water Act permits allowed between July 2003 and December 2004.”

Similarly, air pollution has been a longtime problem in industrial history (to the point that smog and smoke became defining features of London, particularly noteworthy in Dickens—“Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”). Over 700 people died in one week in 1873 in London due to smog, and later in 1952, 4,000 people died from smog. In England, the Clean Air Act was passed in 1956 which ultimately led to a 60% reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions between 1970 and 1994.

In America, Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1963, but as recently as 2007, up to 46% of Americans were living in counties with unhealthy amounts of pollution or ozone in the air.


Environmental Damage in the Developing World

One of the major impacts of production that often seems invisible to many in wealthier nations is the extreme damage done to those living in developing countries. Because health and safety standards are often much lower in developing countries, and enforcement is often lax at best, significant environmental damage can pile up in these countries, especially when manufacturers choose to outsource production to these locations because with low health rates comes low production costs.

In fact, many of the health problems associated with life in the developing world can be directly correlated with the poor containment of pollution and impact from manufacturing. According to the World Health Organization, the major environmental problems facing those in developing countries include unsafe drinking water, air pollution, indoor smoke, the spread of malaria from improper sewage and infrastructure, road traffic, lead exposure, climate change, and unintentional poisonings.

And the death and disease suffered by these people is astounding. Especially compared with living standards in developed countries, it is astounding to consider the number of entirely preventable deaths that occur in the developing world each year. Consider the following statistics:

  • Over 1.2 million people die each year of malaria, likely as a direct result of poor treatment of water, deforestation, and poor infrastructure development.
  • 1.7 million people die each year because of diseases spread in unsafe drinking water.
  • Climate change is estimated to cause 150,000 deaths each year as changing temperatures, environmental disasters, and agricultural problems lead to the spread of diseases, loss of food, and deadly disasters (which tend to have much higher death rates in poorer areas).
  • Accidental poisonings kill over 355,000 people each year. Consider these pictures of the pollution in the Ganges River, and it becomes easy to see how improper disposal of waste materials as exaggerated by the prevalence of manufactured materials can produce a huge environmental and health hazard (WARNING: the custom of disposing of both animal and human remains in the Ganges River remains persistent. Many may find the above pictures disturbing.)

In addition, a large amount of annual population growth occurs in the developing world. As populations rise and already unhealthy areas become overcrowded, environmental damage and health risks will only be magnified.


Global Warming

The production of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, shot up dramatically following the start of the Industrial Revolution and by all accounts, this can be considered the start of our most pressing environmental concern as a global population: the rapidly escalating problem of climate change.

Climate change promises to radically alter the global way of life within the immediate future. Even an apparently small increase in average annual temperatures can make all the difference in whether or not a crop will be viable for that year, or whether not an area will remain liveable for humans as well as native plants and animals.

And in addition to increasing average temperatures comes many associated environmental problems that would have been difficult for previous generations to predict. It is very likely that global warming has played a large role in the severity of recent natural disasters including floods, hurricanes, and record-breaking snowstorms. These kinds of disasters bring high mortality rates, extreme property damage, and loss of major resources.

Though it is impossible to point to any single cause of global warming as our societal dependence on fossil fuels permeates every facet of our lives, there is no doubt that unregulated manufacturing presents a serious problem. Consider that, for example, a single power plant in Georgia released nearly 23 million metric tons of CO2 in 2010.


Fordism, Post-Fordism, and the Environment


Fordism, the manufacturing ideology based on that of industrialist Henry Ford, became the de facto model for most manufacturers in the mid- to late-twentieth century. In a Fordist model, workers are employed in assembly lines in which they perform rote tasks made faster and simpler by the use of machinery. Products are mass-produced and marketed based on general class distinctions and stereotypes, and employees are paid highly enough that they can afford to purchase the products they make.

One of the best results of Fordism was that people in the first world were able to experience an exceptionally high quality of life on average. This meant that fewer people were dying as a result of hunger, exposure, and preventable disease. More people were able to get higher paid, lower intensity jobs, and were often able to live longer and provide for larger families.

But on the flip side, Fordism has led to the creation of an unprecedented culture of consumption. The result has been the rise of the production and purchase of often unnecessary goods (e.g. fashion, toys, entertainment, luxury goods). These goods are often purchased for reasons of status, and increasing amounts of disposable income has allowed for shopping to become something of a hobby and consumerism to become the standard.

We begin to see carbon emissions rising to unusually high levels in the middle part of the 19th century, around the beginning of the Industrial Era. Rates rise steadily until the 1950s, around the time that Fordism and automotive production take off, suggesting a strong correlation between an overall increase in factories powered by coal and rising levels of pollution, and global environmental change.

Some theorists suggest that today we live in a Post-Fordism society. Post-Fordism is characterized by small batch production cycles, marketing targeted towards niche groups as opposed to large class groups, greater emphasis on information technologies and economies of scope (companies that produce more than one good at a lower total cost than a company that produces only one of those goods), and the employment of white-collar workers. However, not all theorists agree on whether or not we have left the Fordism age, with certain theorists preferring the phrase “Neo-Fordism” to suggest we have not made a total break from Fordism, while others choose “After-Fordism” to suggest we don’t know exactly where we stand in relation to Fordism yet.

As Kasa suggests, because this After-Fordism age relies so heavily on telecommunications and a stronger information network, there is the potential that we could use our reliance on technology to actually decrease our reliance on unsustainable energy sources. For example, today many people prefer to telecommute, or live in urban areas where public transportation is easily accesible. These people may not need to purchase a car, thereby saving all of the resource that would be needed to manufacture, deliver, sell, and power a car.

Part 1: The Industrial Revolution, Climate Change, Global Environmental Problems, and Manufacturing

Part 2: Does automation provide any environmental aid? How can innovation lead to a better environmental picture?

Part 3: Is automation a better environmental option than the alternative? Can we keep people at work while also saving the environment?

Part 4: How do global politics and other factors affect the environmental situation of manufacturing?

Part 5: What can we conclude from all of this, and what can everyone do to contribute to a greener world?