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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?