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Otto de Graaf


A Pragmatic Approach to Sustainability

Treating it as a quality attribute can help manufacturers accelerate their growth

Published: Tuesday, July 19, 2022 - 11:02

Despite the urgency of the climate crisis, and smart tech that enables the transition toward the factory of the future, for many manufacturers sustainability still feels like an afterthought rather than a priority. Certainly, sustainability may require big changes in strategy, processes, technology, and culture. Yet choosing to create a green manufacturing organization is not only the right thing to do; it is also, for now, a potential differentiator. This article outlines a pragmatic model to help you improve your sustainability by using quality data.

Sustainability: A real business need

With energy prices going through the roof, and scarcity of materials rampant, being sustainable is no longer just a greenwashing effort but a real business need. In its 2021 Climate Check report, research firm Deloitte identified the 11 biggest environmental sustainability and climate change issues already affecting or threatening organizations. Nearly 30 percent of businesses reported operational impact, 26 percent felt the effects of scarce resources, and 11 percent saw the need to modify industrial processes.

It doesn’t stop there. Being sustainable increasingly will become table stakes. Manufacturers that postpone green efforts or adopt these too slowly may lose competitive advantage. With more than one way to achieve sustainability goals, how can manufacturers deliver meaningful progress and ensure consistency?

The impact of a green transition

Most manufacturers already have a position on sustainability. The conventional view—that it’s a cost driver with limited business value—is slowly changing as more organizations experience the benefits of going green.

In its May 2022 report, “How to manage climate change impacts as a business model in manufacturing,” research firm Gartner noted the three top benefits achieved through sustainability programs: accelerated innovation, improved resource efficiency, and increased brand reputation.

Many organizations are still trying to figure out the best way to start their green endeavor. Not being sustainable often means inconsistent quality, faulty products, paper administration, waste, and a higher risk of human mistakes. To transform their factories sustainably, manufacturers must understand the effect that sustainability has on their daily work. 

Take rework, for instance. All manufacturers want to continuously improve their efficiency while avoiding rework and adjustments. Without accurate measurements and accessible data, it’s difficult to be mindful of how resources are being used. Thus, manufacturers are in danger of wasting more energy on the production line and potentially using more raw materials. Instead of creating quality products the first time around, they will need to put in more work and deal with longer lead times. 

Similarly, the effect of faulty products is just as bad for business. In extreme cases, it can cause serious brand damage, eat into profits, and bring momentous issues on a larger scale. Enabling teams in data-driven decision-making is not only a sign of inclusion, but also helps prevent spoiled raw materials, disposable waste, and consuming too much energy. A good electronic quality management system (eQMS) supports sustainability efforts and helps everyone from the shop floor to the boardroom collaborate better and improve decision making.

A pragmatic, multistep approach

To remain competitive, manufacturers must deliver quality products. So, what if we treat sustainability as yet another quality attribute, and monitor sustainability goals as part of the quality management process? Here are a few steps to get you started.

Step 1: Identify frequent causes for rework to increase FTR percentage and save energy
Determine energy consumption for every step in the production process and focus on improving those steps with the highest energy consumption. Keep it simple during this phase. If you don’t have exact measurements, use estimates. Even energy consumption indications as simple as large, medium, and small can help you prioritize where to improve your processes. In combination with measuring your first-time-right percentage and regular root cause analysis processes, this step will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Step 2: Use more advanced IoT scenarios
Gartner predicts that by 2025, 65 percent of global manufacturers will invest in edge AI as a part of their internet of things-enabled, hyper-automation strategy. This is up from fewer than 10 percent in 2022. Technology-driven sustainability brings numerous benefits, from measuring the exact energy consumption, to using SPC to investigate deviations, and performing root cause analysis to understand the reasons behind these energy consumption deviations. Here you really start measuring energy consumption as any other variable in your quality process. By correlating energy consumption with other measurement data, you’ll be able to generate insights about, for example, the influence of air humidity or outside temperature on energy consumption in the production process.

Step 3: Consider redesigning other manufacturing steps
Once you’ve identified the main reasons for rework and variance, focus on what still requires lots of energy. Evaluate the types of energy consumed (for example, fossil vs. electric) and use quality data to understand and prioritize improvements across the core business processes, from intaking raw materials, to production and, finally, delivery. This may involve changes to the actual product to reduce its sustainability footprint. For example, Oerlemans Plastics is redesigning food-grade plastics to be made of a single type of plastic instead of a combination of plastic types. This makes a previously nonrecyclable plastic a reusable raw material.

Step 4: Ensure quality and sustainability throughout the supply chain
To achieve an even higher standard, you can’t measure just your own production process; you must take the entire supply chain into consideration. Once you’ve defined your sustainability goals, ask your suppliers to take the same measures you did and report on this. For instance, manufacturers can evaluate suppliers, log in their sustainability footprint, and keep track of their certifications via a smart QMS system.

Step 5: Consider changes to your business model
Investing in sustainability may require big changes and effective execution as well as a long-term vision. And although individual practices and goals are important, a sustainable business model should go beyond these. Take circular economy growth, for instance, for which manufacturers can contribute to prevent and eliminate waste. This could involve switching to a subscription model for produced goods, rather than a traditional sales model. This allows, for example, producers of consumer electronics to make products that last longer and are recyclable while still having a viable business model.

Obviously, these later steps have a big impact on organizations and their supply chains. However, by combining sustainability data with quality dat, a there are some easy entrances into making your production process more sustainable.


About The Author

Otto de Graaf’s picture

Otto de Graaf

Otto de Graaf is CMO and co-founder of AlisQI, a cloud-based quality control, quality assurance, and QESH management system.