Digital Manufacturing Powers a Sustainability Transformation

Over the past twenty-five years, sustainability has gone from oft-cited aspiration, to corporate buzzword, to now, a clearly articulated and measurable component of any company wanting to conduct business properly and successfully in the 21st century. The Triple Bottom Line—Profit, People and Planet—has evolved from a 1994 call to action by John Elkington, founder of the British consultancy SustainAbility, to a solid business tenet for corporate governance.

A number of studies have shown that companies that take sustainability and environmental, social and governance (ESG) seriously have outperformed their markets. It makes perfect sense even on a practical level: companies with this focus are eliminating cost in areas such as materials, energy, natural resources like water, and their own production processes.

Digital manufacturing, through its ability to simulate and model beforehand, has become the proving ground for evaluating and executing sustainable material usage, production and delivery processes that lessen environmental impacts. Digital manufacturing optimizes supply chains, accelerating the circular, lower-greenhouse-gas economy. It facilitates supply chain accountability, and the unmasking of “modern slavery,” through the ability to track every production node across a far-flung globalized supply chain to ensure compliance with ethical and sustainable sourcing. Its melding of tech with hands-on work can also provide more stimulating and safer jobs.

Digital manufacturing is, at its heart, synonymous with sustainability, in that they are both anathema to waste. Its hallmark applications, like Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) and Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM), meticulously document production details to eliminate wasteful procedures. The resultant Lean Manufacturing is a foundational element of sustainability: doing the least amount of processing to the least amount of inputs to create a sustainable product and production process.

The digital transformation of manufacturing has also enabled a never-ending compilation of mind-boggling amounts of data. AI and machine learning are being turned loose on this wealth of information to uncover patterns and trends that can lead to improved sustainable strategies and processes.

Finally, the unified digital collaboration platforms at the heart of digital manufacturing create a centralized repository where everything can be examined by everyone in the process for its sustainability impact. That can move the marketplace in the new Experience Economy. “Customers also expect that companies will produce their experiences in ways that minimize impacts on the environment, society and people,” according to Dassault Systèmes. ”People have shown that they are willing to change their behaviors and the brands they buy to help preserve the environment.”

In today’s burgeoning Industry Renaissance, digital manufacturing is spearheading a global transformation in how we design products, learn skills, produce goods and deliver them worldwide. Sustainability is key to this renaissance, and to doing business in a way that innovates and advances while preserving and bettering the world we live in.

John Martin

John Martin writes about technology, business, science, and general-interest topics. A former U.S. correspondent for The Economist (Science & Technology), he writes for the private sector, universities, and media, and can be reached at jm@jmagency.com.

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