What will sustainable factories of the future look like?

What will sustainable factories of the future look like?

Spoiler alert: technology is making it easier than ever to get closer to net-zero. From hyper-connectivity to energy harvesting to accident-preventing hardware, read on to discover what the future holds for sustainable manufacturing.

SOSA editorial team
May 2022

In 2016, the World Economic Forum described Industry 4.0 as “…a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” Fast-forward a light-speed six years, and we’ve got BMW digital twin factories already in place. 

And yet, even with industry 4.0 well underway, industry remains third on the list of the global warming culprits. In the U.S., nearly 30% of gas emissions come from industry, and in Europe, the manufacturing sector is responsible for 880 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. On a global scale, industrial companies account for more than 21% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Given these stats, factories would need to drastically decrease emissions by 2030 to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target.

An optimistic goal, to say the least. The good news? Technology is being developed at record speeds, and what seemed like science fiction a handful of years ago is now becoming a reality. In a not-so-distant future, net-zero factories will be the norm. 

Here’s what they’ll look like:

1. IIOT (Industry Internet Of Things) reigns.
The factory of the future will be hyper-connected and ultra streamlined, harnessing the power of IIOT. Think of what you could accomplish with a cell phone back in the day vs. the smartphone, or in today’s world, what you can do when you hold a few Apple devices together and they ‘talk’ to each other, making the ‘Airdrop’ signal pop up. Likewise, sensors on machines of different sizes in a factory that connect through software will become the leading norm. This interconnectedness provides invaluable, real-time data that allows manufacturers to accurately see the big picture, including where productivity can be enhanced and where waste can be reduced. Above all, industry IOT will bring the clarity needed to move forward, and in turn, allow for immediate action to be taken based on the insights to reduce carbon emissions.

On the flip side, factories will also have to beef up their cybersecurity due to the interconnectedness. In 2020, 21% of all ransomware attacks were targeted at manufacturing sites, ranking them 2nd on the top 10 industries ranked by IBM. In the world of manufacturing, where every hour of unplanned downtime could cost USD 532,000, ensuring cyber safety will be critical.

"Above all, industry IOT will bring the clarity needed to move forward, and in turn, allow for immediate action to be taken based on the insights to reduce carbon emissions."

2. Full energy efficiency.
Tech will ensure energy is distributed efficiently through real-time data that allows constant monitoring and management. This also includes bolstering the efficiency of the machinery itself to reduce energy waste. Today, a factory may have many different machines working simultaneously, but if one machine finishes a process before the others, it may remain turned on until the entire cycle ends, even though it is not in active use. The future manufacturing plants will include sensors that allow the management of individual machines on usage or scheduled basis, pre-loading production cycles to a cloud to ensure no energy is wasted.

Energy harvesting or the re-use of energy from production processes will also become commonplace. For example, heat emitted from machinery will be captured and re-used for powering low-energy consuming machines like lighting and fans. Furthermore, factories may even harvest more energy than needed for their own use, and may become energy suppliers themselves.

A different approach currently being discussed regarding net-zero factories of the 2050s is the concept of “lights out manufacturing.” In other words, factories designed not to have any human occupation, with no AC or lighting. While it may arguably be more efficient, if there is a technical issue such as an unforeseen error in a machine, who will be there to take care of it? This brings us to our next point.

3. A safe environment for employees.
While robotics, AI, and digital technologies will replace some manual labor, the need for the human touch remains of the essence in factories of 2050. One of the major problems factories face today is ensuring employee safety. It is estimated that 2.3 million women and men worldwide succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year. In the UK, 57,000 workers sustained non-fatal injuries at work each year, averaged across 2018/19-2020/21. In the US, private industry employers reported 2.7 million non-fatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2020.

Photo by Joe Dudeck

Factories of the future will be a much safer place for employees. Developments in hardware technology and new materials will become the go-to to support this. Think wearable devices and robotics for factory employees that will help do heavy lifting safely, reducing workplace accidents. Vision-based worksite monitoring through artificial intelligence will flag unsafe practices and prevent them from happening in real-time. Cutting-edge hardware will prevent noise hazards for employees, and advanced imaging will prevent factory disasters such as gas leaks. Hazardous materials, which are currently estimated to cause 651,279 deaths a year, will be replaced with bio-based and plant-based technologies such as soy-bean adhesives and plant-based innovations. An added benefit of new bio and plant-based materials is that they can potentially improve the quality of finished goods. 

4. Circular, not linear.
Apart from the digital transformation taking over the factories of the future, a cultural shift in mindset from the linear model of  take, make, dispose will change to one of reuse, reduce, refurbish, and recycle.

Photo by Thomas Bormans

This goes beyond having a recycling program for plastic bottles consumed by employees (or having a zero plastic tolerance), but from the actual process of manufacturing all the way to finished goods. For example, the steel from a machine that stopped working, or from malfunctioning finished goods, can be remolded to create new products or tools. Water will also be a major player in the circular factory; where water used during production and processes can be repurposed for further manufacturing or for other uses such as irrigation, cleaning, or even toilet flushing. As a bonus, the process of repurposing water for other uses actually creates biogas as a byproduct - so that energy can be harvested as well. 

On another tier, manufacturers will be building products to last from the get-go, reducing the consumer’s need for tossing and rebuying. In the world of food manufacturing, the focus will be on extending shelf life and thus reducing waste, powered by predictive AI technology and bio innovations that preserve goods.

The circular factory will rely on saving, and repurposing each and every byproduct throughout the factory’s value chain so that coming full circle leaves zero carbon emissions in its wake.

5. Seamless carbon capture.
In a perfect world, factories would have zero carbon emissions from manufacturing. However, even with drastically  reduced emissions, it is likely that there will still be minimal emissions. That’s where long-term carbon capture will come in. Factories are particularly strategic targets for carbon capture because it can be captured at large-scale as soon as it comes out (think: right at the smokestack). In contrast, in less concentrated areas where CO2 is floating around in the air, capturing it proves to be more difficult.

Make tech not CO2.
Factories of the future will be increasingly automated - from production lines to inventory management, to customer service, while keeping employee safety a priority. The focus lies in creating a symbiotic system to increase output and profitability while significantly reducing carbon emissions through real-time monitoring and better design. With innovations and digital technologies developing quickly with a particular focus on scale, the green factories of the future are closer than ever.

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