The dark side of Industry 4.0 and its sustainability impact

14 February 2022

The evolution of the Smart Factory and the widespread implementation of Industry 4.0 technologies are essential tools which the UK manufacturing sector must employ if it is to stay globally competitive in the 21st Century. That much is clear.

By Ryan Diver, chief engineer for digital transformation, University of Sheffield AMRC.
Article feature in the latest issue of the AMRC Journal.

A recent report by SAP, one of the world’s leading software producers, made that connection when highlighting four key benefits those companies who have embraced these advances are now experiencing: radical improvements in productivity and automation; resilience and agility no matter what the market or economy bring; confidence to explore new business models and seize opportunities quickly; and green and sustainable solutions without sacrificing profitability.

Those same benefits are often used to argue that Industry 4.0 leads to green and sustainable manufacturing. But from a sustainability perspective, this only tells half of the story.

It is true that Industry 4.0 and Smart Factory technologies can enable reduced wastage through better control and visibility; better efficiencies leading to energy savings; increased productivity; improved quality through insights from the data collected, and much more. But there is the other half to the story that has a significant impact on the climate emergency.

Productivity is great for companies, but does it help sustainability? I have spent the last ten years devoted to the application of robotics, automation and digital manufacturing technologies to improve productivity usually through the application of robotics to improve quality leading to right-first-time manufacturing. However, productivity improvements usually result in cheaper manufacturing costs or larger volumes, better market competitiveness that can lead to more competitive prices that can ultimately lead to higher consumption and thus a higher sustainability impact.

Then there is the carbon footprint of data.

Data is the foundation of Industry 4.0. Within the research team at the AMRC’s Factory 2050 we have the Factory+ project, an open framework to standardise and simplify the way that data is extracted, transported, stored, processed, consumed and protected across a manufacturing organisation.

In 2018, data centres worldwide consumed around 200 TWh, equal to one per cent of global energy use

This is essentially the network that transports data from all of our industry 4.0 devices to a central location, and where the hidden sustainability impact lies. In a month, billions of data points traverse the network and millions are stored.

Even with the best intentions, the capture and storage of complex manufacturing operations using Industry 4.0 technologies will result in a significant environmental impact. In 2018, data centres worldwide consumed around 200 TWh, equal to one per cent of global energy use [1], with different companies relying on generating (or buying to offset) renewable energy to lessen the burden on the world.

And what is the impact of translating paper-based recording systems to a digital passport, or even just an identical digital copy? What would the storage impact be?

Recently, while helping my parents move home – sadly, there were no robots on hand to help with the heavy lifting – my mum gave me a box of photos and asked me to upload them to her tablet.  For her, it was a simple task of digitising something analogue, but as a researcher of advanced manufacturing smart factories and a student of sustainable manufacturing, it highlighted a significant sustainability impact of Industry 4.0 and the Smart Factory manufacturing mindset.

From a sustainability perspective, there was an energy cost from taking and printing the images, but that energy cost hasn’t increased in the past 15 years since my parents last moved house. But what will happen now is, I will digitise these images into around 500Mb of image data that will be stored on Google’s Photo servers. While it would be very difficult to understand the energy cost of my photos on Google’s servers, there would be a year-on-year sustainability cost to the storage of these photos within one of Google’s Data Centres.

This is just for a few family photos, not a global organisation. In June 2021 alone, Airbus delivered 63 single aisle [2] aircrafts which as you can imagine, even if only basic data is captured on each process, would require significant amounts of storage that would have to be kept for the life of the aircraft plus a number of years.

Even with the best intentions, the capture and storage of complex manufacturing operations using Industry 4.0 technologies will result in a significant environmental impact. In a number of years, I would expect that manufacturing data at a large aircraft or automotive company could be rivalling the quantity of storage of Facebook putting a massive strain on processing systems, data storage servers and clouds, which all need energy to function.

When global leaders met in Glasgow for COP26, sustainable manufacturing alongside the UK government’s target of net zero by 2050 was inevitably high on the political agenda. Embracing Industry 4.0 and pushing ahead with the development of the Smart Factory will be part of that conversation but alone they cannot be the shining light for a green manufacturing sector, there are hidden sustainability impacts we must remember.

Industry 4.0 technologies present a bright future, but with that comes a dark side as well.



Article feature in the latest issue of the AMRC Journal.

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