The surprising truth about robots and sustainability

The new wave of green manufacturing

The surprising truth about robots and sustainability

Automation and robots have entered the public consciousness as a viable means of increasing efficiency for many years now, whether that is to take on tedious chores such as lawn mowing or to step in where jobs pose a very real threat to human life, such as for bomb disposal. When it comes to manufacturing and the factory floor however, the move from modular automation to the full integration of complex robots has perhaps not had the same level of immediate acceptance. An often overlooked benefit of robotic manufacturing is the sustainability and energy efficiencies that they bring. But that is set to change, as more and more multinational businesses and SMEs increasingly recognise the value robots can provide in increasing productivity, reducing costs and now helping meet sustainability goals, the move towards robotic manufacturing has very much been set in motion.

Sustainable manufacturing has evolved from the original concept of sustainable development, introduced in the 1980s to address concerns about environmental impact, economic development, globalisation, inequalities and other factors. The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production defines it as “the creation of goods and services using processes and systems that are non-polluting, conserving of energy and natural resources, economically viable, safe and healthful for workers, communities, and consumers, socially and creatively rewarding for all working people” 1.

Certainly, if robots could be part of the key to a more sustainable manufacturing future, we should celebrate it. Much of the debate remains around whether they are socially sustainable as well, and interestingly, scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been looking into the experience of manufacturing facilities that are integrating robots, recently working with a German carmaker, BMW. They found that robot-human teams were in fact around 85 per cent more productive than either alone 2. Robots may change the working landscape, but we need not imagine that this will be solely negative – in fact investing in robots is likely to keep companies competitive and profitable in the global manufacturing market.

For companies that have yet to make the investment, the ability to reduce production waste and save energy could be just the incentive they need. In this context, IDC forecasts that worldwide spending on robotics and related services will more than double by 2020, growing from $91.5 billion in 2016 to more than $188 billion in 2020 3. Of course, an ideal solution for any manufacturer would include increasing energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions but without sacrificing productivity and cost efficiency in the process. Until now, the sweet spot between the two has remained elusive for most businesses, and many automation solutions have been reported to result in increased energy consumption. That has now changed. The new generation of robots on the market, allowing for fully integrated solutions and manufacturing processes designed with robots in mind, is changing this.

Their speed increases the production rate, reducing standby time. They can work non-stop and perform several tasks in a cycle. They can work unsupervised, in the dark and in unheated environments – two factors which alone can translate into serious energy savings for manufacturers. We attempt to “program” ourselves to turn off lights, to differing levels of success of course, and people are encouraged to do the same in manufacturing spaces, turning off peripherals when not in use. The main difference with robots? Once programmed – they never forget.

Because robots are precise, they reduce scrap or excess material. This means not just a reduction in energy usage and waste but also material waste. By precisely programming how much glue or paint is needed and then repeating the same application process exactly each time, this both reduces the material used and the amount of defective or unsuitable end products, if not eliminating them entirely. At the end of the day this has a direct knock on effect on the number of items that end up in landfill or are returned after purchase, an end result that is good for everyone - producer, consumer and the environment.

For products such as cars or white goods, where spare parts are needed for years after production of the car has ended, robots can once again reduce energy use. Many automotive manufacturers are now transferring the production of such parts from large production lines, which in the past need to be maintained only to be used infrequently for the mass production of a specific part, to a small number of robots which can be easily programmed to produce a range of parts as and when needed. This thereby eliminates the need for large scale production processes to be maintained, reducing space, energy and material usage. Epson’s dual-arm robot is one of this new generation of robots able to complete such tasks; handling multiple products and able to be activated and re-programmed in a timely manner as an emergency production system.

Once a product reaches the end of its use, robots again become a part of the manufacturing life cycle. Not only can they reduce waste during manufacturing, but they can also support the recycling process after use. Through increased component recognition robots can help dismantle used goods, to ensure as many parts as possible are reused and or recycled. If we are to create a truly sustainable production process, this circular approach is our only solution, and as robots do their part in helping to protect the planet’s resources, we expect to see their relationship with humans become more productive and collaborative as well.

On top of the social benefits to the workforce, it is becoming clear that robots bring a surprising number of sustainable benefits to manufacturing; from remembering to turn the lights off to reducing excess scrap or waste material during manufacturing and even, during at the end of life of a product, in dismantling. As more manufacturing comes to the home market, we can be sure that further benefits will continue to be seen by organisations globally. As shipping and distribution channels shorten, reducing environmental footprints continues to get easier, leading to an era when consumers could eventually expect to produce only exactly what they need.