The U.S. Department of Commerce defines sustainable manufacturing as “the creation of manufactured products that use processes that minimize negative environmental impacts; conserve energy and natural resources; are safe for employees, communities and consumers; and are economically sound.” For plant managers wanting to meet these criteria, they’ll need to look far beyond optimizing the efficiency of their equipment, but consider their machines’ entire lifespan, from assembly to disposal.
Most of the discussion on e-waste revolves around consumer electronics like phones and laptops, but improper disposal of industrial parts such as robots, controllers and motors have just as damaging an effect on the environment. How can manufacturers keep pace with technological advancements while moving toward sustainable manufacturing practices?
Technology is evolving at an increasingly rapid rate. Consequently, parts, components and even whole machines are becoming obsolete much quicker than before. One part that becomes obsolete in a factory could result in a plant manager sourcing an entirely different alternative. In turn, peripheral healthy equipment may no longer work with the new part and therefore need replacing also. Where these parts end up is part of the e-waste epidemic.
Sourcing an exact replacement for a broken part to prevent the unnecessary waste of healthy parts could reduce this issue, but this requires the plant to have an obsolescence strategy in place. Planning is essential in developing a long-term obsolescence strategy to achieve sustainable processes and avoid unnecessary revenue losses. A manufacturer should note which of its existing components should be replaced or repaired before the need for an immediate upgrade.
When a part breaks down, some manufacturers might deem it necessary to write off the entire system, but this often isn’t necessary. Instead of implementing a costly overhaul, manufacturers could implement a replacement plan that takes account of the financial effect, downtime and environmental impact of a change to the equipment. This approach could significantly reduce the e-waste a facility generates.
A life-cycle assessment is an analysis technique to assess the environmental impact associated with all the stages of a product’s life. This is a good place to start when implementing an obsolescence strategy. For example, when equipment fails or breaks down, manufacturers should opt for a used or reconditioned part rather than buying a new motor. Reconditioned parts offer huge cost savings and a positive environmental impact, especially if one component replacement saves an entire machine from obsolescence.
Sustainable manufacturing looks to minimize waste and reduce environmental impact through the reduction of energy and water use, emissions, and waste generation. Obsolescence management is an integral part of this waste management process and could significantly reduce the amount of e-waste that is disposed of annually in the United States. It comes down to assessing current systems and resources, conducting risk analysis on all parts, and securing access to obsolete spares.
Mark Howard is the U.S. country manager for EU Automation, an automation parts supplier.