Sustainable manufacturing practices are not just for Earth Day

The demand for sustainable manufacturing will keep rising as consumers begin making decisions based on companies’ efforts in demonstrating environmental responsibility.
22 April 2022

A bus that drives with hydrogen is pictured at a station of the Ad Astra Rocket Company in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. (Photo by Ezequiel BECERRA / AFP)

Earth Day, celebrated on April 22 each year, is an annual event to demonstrate the support for environmental protection at an individual and societal level. In the past, environmentally friendly practices are rarely associated with the manufacturing industry. However, this global day has initiated sustainable considerations for organizations of all sizes, to explore ways to improve their operations, allowing for increased productivity and efficiency while adopting green measures. As the new generation of consumers becomes more environmentally conscious, sustainability has become a vital factor to the success of an organization.

With the rise of the term “sustainable manufacturing”, defined as the manufacturing of products using processes that minimize negative environmental impacts, manufacturers are introducing innovative solutions to their factory floors. Sustainable manufacturing has spread far beyond the niche groups of organizations that positioned themselves as environmentally friendly and encompass many notable firms from a wide range of industries.

This is a goal sought by manufacturers that aim for a competitive advantage in the market while taking into account the negative impacts their operations have on the environment. Few people connect collaborative robots (cobots) and sustainability but this global Earth Day celebration has given manufacturers a chance to pause and reflect on the difference that cobots can make.

Reducing waste in manufacturing

In the manufacturing process, turnaround time (time taken for a product to be produced) has to be fast, and defects and raw material wastage are minimized to meet production targets consistently. Manufacturing defects and discarded raw materials are not only costly to companies, they become waste that impacts the environment. One of the most effective ways to reduce both cost and waste in this sector is to improve the quality of manufacturing processes. This is where collaborative robots, or cobots, can offer manufacturers a helping hand.

Cobots are built for repetitive actions. Cycle after cycle, the most efficient actions are repeated at the same pace, and with the same precision. This reduces wastage in industries such as welding, dispensing and material removal, and minimizes the number of defective products. Production output becomes more predictable as takt time (cycle time for a specific process) is stabilized, which allows for more efficient and optimized logistics arrangements.

For example, Hyundae Induction Hardening Heat Treatment (HIHHT), a Korean company that provides induction hardening heat treatment process, deployed two UR10 cobots in their process. These cobots place an untreated component into the treatment machine and then remove the treated component to a conveyer belt. As a result, HIHHT’s product failure rate decreased from 0.03% to 0.01%, and production efficiency increased by 31%.

While the impact on waste at each workshop or factory may seem insignificant in the context of the world’s challenges, on a global scale, the environmental impact could be considerable.

Reducing emissions from transportation 

Minimizing distances in the supply chain reduces carbon emissions and is better for the environment. Coupled with the vulnerabilities of the global supply chain highlighted during the pandemic, more companies are re-examining their production processes, supply chain and business models to be more self-reliant, cost-efficient, and environmentally responsible.

There is an increasing interest in “reshoring”, as bringing production home is a way to achieve these goals. Robotic technology like cobots have enabled manufacturers to move production processes closer to home and become more resilient in the process.

Space-saving, sustainable manufacturing automation

Manufacturing automation requires robots in the process, and traditionally this requires a significant amount of space allocated in the production facility for the robot and cages for safeguarding. Manufacturers today can deploy lightweight cobots that require no safeguarding for some operations. Cobots can work alongside humans safely, and move between applications without costly facility redesigns.

Sustainable manufacturing cuts energy consumption

Typically, cobots consume less energy compared to traditional robot counterparts. Manufacturers can minimize energy consumption in their cobot-powered applications by running the cobot at 70-80% of its maximum speed and payload.

With the digitalization of the manufacturing processes, remote access tools are introduced to further aid manufacturers in achieving sustainability. For instance, the UR+ ecosystem offers a wide range of remote monitoring and access solutions to track and monitor cobots without having to be onsite. These tools enable manufacturers to program cobots remotely, reducing travel costs and optimizing energy consumption.

The demand for sustainable manufacturing will continue to rise as consumers begin making decisions based on companies’ efforts in demonstrating sustainability. Cobots’ ability to mitigate errors, reduce waste and increase efficiency can play a critical role in reducing carbon footprints. Moving forward, the number of companies leveraging on the perfect human-machine collaboration to maintain the longevity of their businesses will rise.

Article contributed by James McKew, Regional President APAC, Universal Robots