Sustainability? Yes, but of the process and product

“We do not inherit the earth from our forefathers but borrow it from our children.”

Sustainability: a term that encompasses many meanings as well as many problems, some of which are relatively easy to solve, while others inevitably require compromises to be made. From an industrial point of view, the game is mainly played on materials and production processes, as well as on the eco-sustainability of products. The industry is therefore in the position of having to maximize material performance, while adopting “virtuous,” sustainable production cycles and processes, including environmental impact, salubrity of the working environment, without neglecting attention to costs or more generally, the process economy: quite a challenge!

The starting point

Despite the current situation with a pandemic changing the balance, the market continues to show a strong competitive drive: the growing needs in terms of final quality of the product and production efficiency push the world of mechanical processing towards a continuous technological evolution, with heavy investments in the purchase of machining centers that are able to combine efficiency and quality. Today the issue of sustainability seems to be more important: the development of efficient production systems that are able to achieve high-quality standards while respecting the environment is the main industrial objective. So much so that an eco-sustainable economy is gaining ground which takes into account environmental issues that regulate all the production and organizational processes that are part of it.  Therefore “We do not inherit the earth from our forefathers, but we borrow it from our children” is no longer just a slogan, it is becoming an awareness, driving creativity and innovation all the while developing a positive corporate image. From this point of view, new disciplines and new concepts where the focus is on the product, from cradle to grave as they say, are becoming a consolidated reality. This means a change of mentality, with an eye for materials, production processes, life and disposal of goods: the Eco design of factories and production systems

The vision evolves…

An unimaginable speed just a few years ago: evolution is running fast, so much so that it is pushing all social and economic realities to careful analysis with the aim of identifying the right strategy that addresses the evolutionary process. Over the last decade, research projects have been launched at national, European and international levels alike, involving university centers of excellence and industrial realities, with the aim of achieving a complete vision of the productive reality of the future, involving both products and processes, so as to be able to address the changes that characterize the current socio-economic framework. This is not an easy challenge, because it involves effectively managing both the complexity and uncertainty of the marketplace while remaining competitive. But the result will benefit everyone.

 …towards a sustainable production environment

Operational flexibility, with the ability to quickly reconfigure products and processes. The effervescence of the market is accompanied by the growing demand for product customization, which seems to have already surpassed the production of small batches, to move towards the one of a kind, i.e. the production of a single unit per code. This means that the production environment must be able to move on two fronts: production of ever smaller batches, and products of increasing complexity. Obviously, this is possible only if the production structure is efficient. However, in giving the concept of “efficiency” a broader meaning, it involves both the individual resources and the entire logistic apparatus around it. Only alongside this understanding of the term “efficiency” can operational flexibility accompanied by the ability to rapidly reconfigure, with a high level of performance, be achieved.

When we speak of “resource,” it refers to everything that contributes to the production of a given good, therefore man, machine and technology alike. As far as the machine is concerned, a lot can be said. There is no doubt that the road is towards advanced solutions and architectures, leading to continuous improvement, with the aim of achieving only predictive maintenance and zero-defect production.

But is that really all it is? In fact, that may have been the ambition a few decades ago. Today the stakes are higher and lead to questions about how we want to achieve those goals, all the while involving the sensitive issue of sustainability.

But even the term “sustainability” got an upgrade! If sustainability could be almost synonymous with energy efficiency and low emissions, today we go well beyond this, certainly considering an optimization of products and production processes, but possibly regarding de-production. Thinking about the environment that has been defined, the surrounding space considered with all or most of its characteristics, then the logic with which a given good is designed, the material, the production, the logistics, etc. also look at when the good will cease to live.

The concept of the modern factory sees it as sustainable, according to a vision that no longer concerns only production, but also involves repair, updating, etc., to arrive at recycling when a product has reached the end of its life cycle. Once more, the factory changes because it has to maximize the exploitation of recycling products.

Furthermore, this involves disassembling upstream to separate what can be repaired from what can be recycled, or from what must be definitively discarded and therefore disposed of. This is the only possible way to achieve a higher degree of efficiency, which is not limited to the mere energy aspect, but reaches the fullest meaning of sustainability and environmental efficiency.

The role of enabling technologies

In Italy they are known as Enabling Technologies, but also as KET(Key Enabling Technologies), and according to the definition given by the European Commission, they are “knowledge-intensive technologies associated with high R&D intensity, rapid innovation cycles, substantial investment expenditure and highly-skilled jobs”.

They therefore play an important, fundamental role as they represent a strategic element in a framework of economic competitiveness at international level: they are the KETs that drive innovation. Innovation should not only be read in production processes, but also in products and services, contributing significantly to an increase in added value.

KETs do not only have a technological impact: a KET-based product uses advanced manufacturing technologies and increases the commercial and social value of a good or service.

According to recent EU-funded studies, KETs are and will be crucial for society and the economy because whatever happens, they will be the main driver of economic and social development in the coming years. According to what has been observed in the past years, despite the current, very fluid situation at a global level, it seems certain that only the knowledge and use of enabling technologies will allow manufacturing companies (but not only them!) to make the transition to an evolved and sustainable economy, an indispensable condition to ensure well-being, prosperity, and security to the population.

KETs, rightly considered leading technologies, represent the basis on which industrial innovation is founded, a major player also in a social context given the “attitude” to the development of new products and/or services, where sustainability plays a central role.

Sustainability indicators?

Is environmental sustainability an objective or subjective value? Good question: many values, such as CO2emissions, can be measured and therefore be an objective fact. Others are more random, but it is still certain that, regardless of what the activity is, it has an impact on the environment and modifies it in every aspect, including an economic one, and the consequent socio-cultural organization. This logic also applies to production processes, so how do we assess sustainability? Obviously with the help of, sustainability indicators.

In reality, sustainability indicators are not yet well defined, so much so that both studies and comparison tables have been launched. Given the vastness of the issues that lead to a sustainable product and process, the different “state of affairs” in different countries should also be considered.

An interesting trend concerns the allocation of CO2 and GHG emissions in general that is attributed to the country where the good is produced. Formally this is correct since emissions are actually emitted where the production process takes place. In reality, with the relocation of production to countries with low production costs, it would be more correct to approach the problem in a different way because it is a global issue. It could also be questionable to define a country as “virtuous” just because it uses a good whose production has been outsourced elsewhere. From a social, as well as cultural perspective, responsibility for emissions should at least be shared. Many sectors are starting to certify the environmental sustainability of their suppliers, as well as ethical certifications, starting from the assumption that delocalized production can lower direct costs, it can make indirect ones grow in an uncontrolled way. Again: a good produced in an industrialized country could have a limited environmental impact thanks to the use of innovative technologies and the use of renewable sources, in addition to regulations.

Therefore, we welcome sustainability indicators that look at the problem from a broader perspective.

Eco design: between sustainability and design

On the design side, Eco design, a term that indicates the correlation between environment and design, considers the entire life cycle of the product: from the choice of raw materials to end-of-life cycle disposal, has become recurrent.

According to the most recent interpretations, the prefix eco does not only refer to “ecological,” but also wants to underline the economic aspect, giving therefore to the term Eco design a double valence, both of safeguard of the environment and maintaining low costs.

Each component should comply with Eco design criteria, often regulated by the relevant standards: designers and manufacturers are invited (sometimes obliged) to adopt new reference parameters, both in the design and production fields. Sustainable economy and sustainable production are concepts that are frequently associated with Eco design, with the common goal of making the best use of available resources, reducing waste, and seeking every possible form of recovery of disused materials in order to make every resource “renewable.”

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