Green Manufacturing: Industry 4.0 and the Sustainable Future

April 23, 2019

Industry 4.0 technology and green manufacturing go hand-in-hand, and they are guiding manufacturing conversations. Part of this “green dialogue” exists from redirected priorities toward global climate health. However, another major concern is enduring feasibility and hidden, long-term costs caused by poor environmental behaviors. Now the bottom line is accounting for environmental costs and long-term sustainability.

Factories across industries have made advances in reducing single-use plastic, carbon footprints and water waste. Many have relied on Industry 4.0 technologies such as automation, clean energy, data analysis and prediction, IoT and digitization. Here are three exciting green manufacturing stories showing how better for Earth is better for everyone.

Innovative Manufacturing: Processing Single-Use Plastic Bottles into Clothing

In 2015, women’s activewear company Girlfriend Collective began a mission to provide clothing that was ethical in all the right ways: fair wages, no child labor and environmentally friendly. To achieve their manufacturing goal, they tackled their supply chain at every step, beginning with their flagship Girlfriend Leggings.

First, they committed to making these leggings out of recycled plastic water bottles and fishing nets, keeping plastic waste out landfills and oceans. This process is made possible by a Taiwanese factory certified by the Taiwanese government, which guarantees their promises of post-consumer, ethically recycled plastics. Second, they have a highly automated processing system that re-manufactures the plastic into super-soft, super-fine threads that can be knit into the base yarn of the pant.

Finally, the leggings go to a dye house that uses a monitored, digitized wastewater treatment plant to clean the water of the OEKO-certified dyes used on the clothing and run-off fibers. Real time monitoring means the water can be discharged when it meets code, entering the waterway cleaner than it left. Afterwards, the filtered dye gets aggregated into mud, sold to a pavement company and used to build beautiful, colorful sidewalks. This last step is called the “circular economy.”

Once the material is constructed and dyed, it goes to Thygesen Textile Vietnam, a Danish-owned, Vietnamese-operated-and-staffed clothing manufacturer in Vietnam. Apart from the incredible working conditions, the company is committed to supplementing the difficult tasks of sewing with advanced R&D. It allows employees to work on non-traditional materials in efficient ways, reducing fabric waste. On a typical day, it may take 24 hours to produce 100 pairs of leggings.

Manufacturing Energy Use: Mitigating Carbon Footprint at Every Level

While manufacturing requires energy, it doesn’t require waste or necessarily involve traditional fossil fuels. The National Association of Manufacturers released a report in the mid-2000s highlighting manufacturers who had prioritized clean manufacturing via energy use across all supply chain levels. By innovating at multiple steps in the manufacturing process, reducing energy use by 3-5% at each stage, overall “dirty” energy could be reduced by 30-60%. Those behaviors begun and modeled by companies featured in that report have continued to inspire today.

One inspired result is the Department of Energy’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Innovation program, instituted in 2013. Manufacturers engaged with this program can benefit from its technology research and development institutes. This resulting R&D applies to fuel-cells, solar energy use, energy security and lightweight materials. Each of these advancements help companies utilizing the technology to reduce their overall carbon impact.

A Sealevel Systems manufacturing neighbor, BMW, is a clear example of putting this research to work. In BMW’s Greer, South Carolina plant, engineers have created a unique source of power for material handling trains. Using bio-methane gas from a local landfill, these trains are powered by hydrogen fuel cells. BMW’s hydrogen fuel cell trains reduce overhead labor costs, infrastructure space needs and dependence on batteries or other power methods that degrade quickly.

Manufacturing Water Waste: Advanced Green Packaging

While consumers have loved the #unboxing trend, it hasn’t always been good for the planet. According to the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, less than 8% of the five billion pounds of plastic/flexible packaging waste gets recycled. Again, these materials usually end up in landfills, taking decades to break down.

Not only that, these materials – even non-plastic ones – often waste water during their creation process. The five core packaging materials of steel, aluminum, glass, paper and plastics can waste up to 800 billion cubic meters of water annually. This waste comes in the form of non-reusable water and polluted, restorable water.

Now, industry powerhouses like Dell and HP are utilizing advanced packaging science to reduce material consumption overall and diminish packaging’s environmental impact. For example, wheat straw broken down by enzymes in an organic chemical process can create a green biomaterial safe and effective for packaging. This process has a 90% water waste reduction.

However, it’s important to note that plastic packaging has a place in certain manufacturing spaces such as pharmaceutical and medical. As a non-reactive material, it prevents corrosion or contamination. Nonetheless, Industry 4.0 technology such as automation and flexible electronics have led to plastic production systems that minimize water use and lead to immediate wastewater cleaning, drastically reducing the impact of plastics on water systems.

Green Technology Manufacturing

While this piece profiles milestones for industries across consumer industries, green manufacturing has a place in industrial technology too. Recycling e-waste instead of mining, minimizing harmful plastic use (or reusing recycled plastics) and creating materials better for the earth are all steps that should be taken.

Sealevel is committed to having green manufacturing policies in place to protect and conserve, for us and for the future.