Manufacturing is becoming the focus for efficiency and ecology

by Andy Oram
August 5, 2015

This article originally appeared on the International Manufacturing Technology Show site.

After the initial mania over Toyota’s Prius hybrid car, self-satisfied owners (including me) were chastened to learn that the environmental benefits were not as large as we had believed. We got great gas mileage, but the effects of making these cars took a toll on the planet. Their components cause more carbon emissions during manufacture, and use environmentally damaging materials such as rare earth metals.

Increasingly, environmentalists are looking beyond each product toward the manufacturing process—and change there is picking up pace. Ultimately, manufacturers will save money and enjoy more flexible manufacturing processes as well as help with climate change and other effects on the environment.

In his riveting talk at the 2015 Solid conference, and a related O’Reilly article, automobile manufacturer Kevin Czinger charged that the vast majority of carbon emissions associated with cars comes during the lifecycle of manufacturing, delivery, and disposal, rather than in drivers’ day-to-day use.

Where do the innovations that upgrade the manufacturing process come from? In typical Internet-of-Things fashion, the insights come from data collection. For instance, one company named 24M set out to radically streamline the manufacturing process for lithium-ion batteries. For years, analysts have been expecting new products to replace these workhorses of modern machinery, but innovation in batteries has been disappointing. So improving the manufacturing process for existing, successful batteries is critical.

The founders of 24M realized that current manufacturing processes for lithium-ion batteries were inefficient artifacts of the environment at the company that originally invented the battery. More important, they used data on different processes to throw out their original technical plan and adopt a totally different one.

Rethinking a process in the light of new technologies requires both imagination and rigor. It alters manufacturers’ relationships to vendors, customers, competitors, and even their own employees, who may have to be trusted with more initiative.

The thinking can be compared to going on a vacation. If you have a large van available, you’re tempted to throw in every piece of clothing and convenience you can imagine. But if you decide suddenly to switch to a bicycle, you’ll have to reconsider not only what you’re bringing but the activities you’ll enjoy on the trip. By leaving home your suit and hair-dryer, you may give up the chance to dine at a four-star restaurant. Your trip will have different experiences and pleasures, but you’ll reach your destination. And that is goal for modern manufacturing: to create great products with less of a strain on the world’s resources.

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