Sustainability: making the invisible visible

Institute for Manufacturing
IfM Insights
Published in
6 min readApr 2, 2024

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In our conversation with members of the IfM's Centre for Industrial Sustainability, we explore the crucial importance of making industrial resources more visible. By bringing to light some of the often neglected aspects, we discover how — as resources become more visible — their value increases, which results in a crucial step towards achieving environmental, climatic, and financial benefits.

Studies show that people manage their spending more carefully when they pay by cash rather than card. Cash is visible and tangible, and wasting it feels harder to do.

Based on industrial sustainability work with countless manufacturers over many years, Professor Steve Evans in the IfM’s Centre for Industrial Sustainability (CIS) has concluded that this principle applies to other resources too. He regularly observes that electricity, compressed air, water and surplus materials hide in plain sight in factories — in cables, tanks, pipes and skips — and are consequently wasted. However, when these resources are made more visible, their perceived value increases, resulting in more careful management. This is a positive development for the environment, the climate and the financial bottom line.

In the 1980s some researchers believed that we had two centuries to tackle the issue of climate change, but not everyone agreed with this prediction. Over the following decades, the tireless efforts of those who dissented against this view helped to shift perceptions. Unfortunately, climate change continued to worsen during this time due to a lack of consensus and inadequate action. We now face a crisis that we are not prepared for, which demands a large-scale transformation of our industrial systems. In 2011 Professor Steve Evans established the CIS at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM) to facilitate this change, and he has since observed some promising developments.

“In even the very best companies, what was considered normal 20 years ago is now seen as absurd,” says Steve. “For example, factories would leave machines on overnight or over the weekend just to ensure the next job would be high quality. The best companies don’t do that anymore. At Toyota, an employee comes in a few hours early to ensure that the machines are operational for the shift. This practice saves them a lot of energy and money,” he continues.

Examples like Toyota highlight that there is a growing focus on sustainability in industry, but many manufacturers still need convincing to change their practices, especially when they cannot see their waste.

The case for industrial frugality

Energy waste is a type of waste that often goes unnoticed, so it is an important area of focus for Steve and his CIS colleagues in their work with industry. With renewable energy powering more than half of the electricity sold in the UK, it is not self-evidently a sound priority, as Steve explains: “If a manufacturer exclusively relies on renewable energy, one might assume that there is little incentive for them to conserve energy, other than to save money. However, this is not entirely true. Paradoxically, reducing energy consumption can be an effective strategy to reduce real CO2 emissions. When a manufacturer uses less energy, the overall energy demand in the industrial system decreases. In the UK, renewable energy has become cheaper to produce than fossil fuels, so it is more likely that fossil fuel providers will be impacted by lower demand than renewable energy providers will. Reducing the proportion of fossil fuels in the energy mix therefore makes sense from an economic perspective.”

With a view of the whole resource system, a frugal mindset is the only sensible option, according to Steve. Even on the materials side, there is work to be done to make that change: “Material waste should not be the biggest challenge for manufacturers because it is in their bins. You can physically see material waste if you bother, but most people don’t bother. Even in our homes, waste tends to become psychologically invisible once the bin lid goes down, so we need to be told to look for it,” he observes.

A material world

Manufacturing serves the purpose of producing material goods for consumers, and industry has the capacity to do so on a large scale. The sector’s history of pollution and industry’s connection to consumerism, however, may lead to the belief that manufacturing is incompatible with sustainability. This belief is incorrect and fails to recognise that food, clothing, medicines, building materials and other essential items are all manufactured goods that we rely on. A sustainable industrial system is necessary to provide these goods to a global population of over 8 billion people. Achieving sustainability cannot be delivered by closing down industry, which is good news, but we absolutely must increase our innovative thinking and implement solutions.

“It is hard to come up with general sustainability recommendations for manufacturers because they are so very different. We can’t say ‘Do this to this type of machine, do that to your schedule, do this to compressed air.’ But there is hope, because what we find works consistently is to show people that waste is happening. Each factory has its own toolkit for dealing with waste; we just need to show them that the waste is there. We find that we don’t have to teach them how to identify changes that will improve the situation. They’re already good at that, and that is really quite important. We must teach them how to see the waste so that they can tackle it,” says Steve.

Waste is just one part of the sustainability picture in industry, but, because there is so much of it, it is a very important part. As Steve notes, it is also an easy place to start when a company wants to improve its environmental impact, and making sustainability easy is crucial. With good and accessible data, it is even easier.

Drawing with data

Dr Duanyang Geng recently completed his PhD at the IfM, under Steve’s supervision. Duanyang has been working for years to understand how industry uses data to conceptualise energy waste — one of manufacturing’s most elusive and widespread forms of waste. For his thesis, he interviewed 30 manufacturers about their energy use, trying to establish what they perceive energy waste to be and what they do to avoid it.

“There is no such thing as energy waste in nature,” says Duanyang. “Energy waste is intimately linked to human industrial practices, so it is up to us to define what separates energy waste from energy use. My many interviews informed my working definition of energy waste as whatever energy is used on top of what is strictly necessary to produce something. The invisibility of energy adds complexity here — manufacturers can’t physically see the energy they use, so they don’t automatically know where their benchmarks are. With digital tracking software, the kilowatt-hours, £/$ and CO2 equivalents can be made visible and translatable.”

As Duanyang observes, digital tracking software has real potential to help manufacturers, but it remains an underused resource, especially in small and medium-sized (SME) manufacturers. Tracking tools can provide figures on energy use, temperature, downtime and more, which can be useful in themselves and also in creative translations.

“Remember the hype around Google Glasses a few years ago?” Steve muses. “Imagine putting on a pair in a factory and getting visual access to the energy use of machines in real time, say, as a symbol that changes in size according to energy spend. Such instant visualisation of invisible waste could be a very powerful tool.”

Manufacturing a sustainable world

Industrial sustainability at the IfM goes beyond the work of the eponymous CIS. From using machine learning to tackle problems of wasted space on lorries to making sophisticated use of additive manufacturing (3D printing), and helping SMEs to benefit from digital tracking tools, different groups are investing time working to manufacture a more sustainable world. In various ways, they are bringing to light what industry and consumers overlook or ignore, providing simple solutions for improvement.

“Not long ago, I had a lovely email from someone who works for a company that made some significant CO2 and financial savings thanks to watching videos on our research. We have not worked with this company, but they were able to make big changes based on the higher-level principles we have observed, which say that there is probably more waste energy, water and materials in your factory than you think. Go looking. This company went looking, they found areas for improvement, and they improved,” says Steve. “It can be that easy, but it still needs to be done.”

Interested in how you can make your organisation more sustainable? IfM Engage, the knowledge-transfer arm of the IfM, offers membership of the Sustainability Association — a place where manufacturing leaders work with world-leading researchers to tackle sustainability challenges in their operations.

Find out more here: https://engage.ifm.eng.cam.ac.uk/sustainability-association/

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