Industry 4.0: Where digital and environmental challenges intersect

  • 21/01/2022
  • 3 minutes

The implementation of Industry 4.0 principles is increasingly vital in many manufacturing sectors. But the success of this technological shift will depend on how well Industry 4.0 accounts for two major challenges facing our societies: the environmental crisis and the digital transformation. These two challenges are often perceived to be distinct — if not incompatible, but in reality they are complementary where manufacturing is concerned. Indeed, Industry 4.0 is an example of how digital technology enables our economies to tackle the environmental issues of the 21st century.

"The circular economy is about sustainably producing goods and services while limiting the consumption and loss of resources and the generation of waste. It is about moving from an all-disposable society to a more circular economic model."

France's Ministry of Ecological Transition

Smarter manufacturing for better resource management

The factory of the future is a facility where data flows freely and enables the intelligent regulation of production activities.It leverages the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence to optimize the consumption of raw materials and resources. Predictive maintenance systems significantly reduce mechanical breakdowns, leaks and other sources of waste. Accurate monitoring of electricity and gas usage leads to improved energy allocation and considerable decreases in overall consumption.

The alliance of digital technologies and traditional industrial know-how also forges a path toward better long-term monitoring of products and the materials that comprise them over. One of the goals of PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) software is to further integrate circular economy principles across the manufacturing landscape. By tracking many products through the phases of design, production, use and recycling, it is now possible not just to extend their service life, but to incorporate their components and raw materials in a new production cycle.

All these examples demonstrate the concrete environmental potential of pursuing digital transformation at manufacturing sites. But to fully exploit that potential, the sector must adopt digital technologies and embark on a profound transformation of business models and working methods. And profoundly transforming companies in a way that is both technologically innovative and sustainable is precisely the point of Industry 4.0.

A manufacturing sector that is more resilient to future crises

The public health and economic crises unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic were a wake-up call, revealing the fragility of many production infrastructures and logistics networks. It was no small feat to reorganize work processes and supply chains in a hurry and it did not happen without mistakes and second-guessing. Yet the IPCC's reports and all the projections about the evolution of the environmental situation stress the fact that this kind of structural crisis will occur more frequently in the future. Natural and climate disasters, new pandemics or drastic ecological measures could once again disrupt the smooth running of the economy. That is why tackling ecological problems also entails building a manufacturing sector that will be more resilient to future crises.

Here again, companies are turning to digital technology to meet the challenge. Over the last two years, SaaS solutions have shown their ability to adapt, in particular by providing each employee with access to the essential tools they need to work remotely. Meanwhile, automation facilitated the resumption of operations at facilities where it was already sufficiently advanced. In the coming years, virtual and augmented reality technologies will make new modes of remote working commonplace, which could also become a determining factor in the resilience of manufacturing companies.

Far from the reductive reasoning that depicts digital transformation as being at odds with ecological concerns, theIndustry 4.0 paradigm shows that these two challenges can and should be confronted simultaneously. More resilient and more sustainable, the industry of the future isa crucial component in our collective response to environmental crises.

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