What is Sustainable Manufacturing?

Written by: Carlos Melgarejo

Read Time: 4 min

Sustainable manufacturing is defined by processes that are non-polluting, conserve energy and other natural resources, and address the economic and safety needs of employees, communities, and consumers. 

Sustainable manufacturing isn’t a new concept, but it is playing a larger role in shaping industrial operations.  Much of this pressure is coming from customers who are factoring sustainability into their purchasing decisions. Increasingly, investors favor companies that are committed to responsible environmental practices. As a result, a legitimate commitment to sustainable manufacturing has become key to remaining competitive. Now industrial companies are forced to balance existing profitable operations against the potential market value of ‘green’ practices.

Why is sustainable manufacturing important?

Corporate success and economic profit increasingly depend upon adopting the following sustainable manufacturing practices:

  • Introducing more attractive, sustainable, and higher-value products to market
  • Improving operational performance—with a particular focus on reducing energy consumption and quality defects
  • Reducing indirect costs such as employee travel, supply chains, inventory management, and machine inefficiencies

These practices are driven by the environmental impacts manufacturers can influence: 

  • Decarbonization of production by reducing direct emissions of greenhouse gases and particles
  • Reduction of energy consumption 
  • Reduction of indirect greenhouse gas emissions directly related to employee travel, raw materials, inputs, suppliers, resellers, etc.

The obvious correlation of economic and environmental benefits makes sustainable manufacturing attractive. This approach requires engineers to think in terms of complete lifecycle management for their products and production facilities. Economic and environmental benefits can be achieved at every stage of a product's life - design, manufacturing, marketing, product use, and disposal or recycling.

The impact of manufacturers on the environment must be reduced to a neutral level. To facilitate this commitment, industrial companies can use powerful tools such as computer-aided design (CAD), augmented reality (AR) software, industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) solutions, as well as product lifecycle management (PLM) software. The use of these tools shortens product development times and ultimately reduces the indirect carbon footprint of a product.

Digital transformation as the path to sustainable manufacturing

Without knowing it, industrial companies that have digitally transformed already have the necessary IT tools to successfully shape ecological change.

Computer-aided design (CAD) 

Generative design capabilities inherent in some CAD tools enable engineers to use algorithms that suggest design options for meeting specific requirements, such as reducing the final mass of a product. For this reason, generative design helps to reduce material usage, for both additive and subtractive manufacturing. Compared to processes such as machining, in which material is removed and waste is generated, additive manufacturing enables savings in materials.

In addition, simulation capabilities allow engineers to identify ways to reduce design cycles and waste associated with prototype builds during development, Process simulation also helps organizations design flexible production lines that can manufacture or assemble different series of products. The transition from specialized sites to flexible factories and decentralized production is a key step towards economic and environmental sustainability.

Product lifecycle management (PLM)

PLM software also contributes to sustainability. With PLM, all of the data associated to a part is supported and managed in a single source of truth. By leveraging this product data more broadly, manufacturers have a fairly accurate level of visibility and traceability into a product's carbon footprint throughout its lifetime. In the same way that we can build up the mass of a product, we can add up its total carbon footprint to help engineers create more sustainable solutions. PLM software also includes features that ensure compliance with the REACH regulation on the use of chemical substances that are potentially hazardous to health and the environment. But choosing fewer polluting components and materials is not just about meeting legal obligations — it also completes the virtuous cycle of design and reuse of sustainable products.

Augmented reality (AR) and digital twins

Design methods, which may incorporate AR, are becoming increasingly affordable and accessible, allowing designers to connect to a full-scale model of a product otherwise known as a digital twin. Remote access to such models eliminates the need for travel and thus saves energy, resources, and time.

Industrial Internet-of-Things (IIoT)

Another avenue to sustainable manufacturing is by networking machines via IIoT software. This allows manufacturers to measure machine productivity and anticipate failures, compare and optimize the regional performances, and minimize quality defects. Networked machines also make it possible to send real data on the performance of the manufacturing process (energy consumption, quality defects, etc.) to the engineers and designers who can then make the necessary corrections.

The minimization or even elimination of quality defects avoids unplanned machine downtimes, which are particularly costly, and reduces expensive material losses. Machine downtime can also be avoided by implementing predictive maintenance.  This extends the product’s life and thus avoids excessive consumption of the materials and energy required to replace the product. 
In addition, developing products compatible with AR-assisted maintenance techniques (where disassembly/assembly and even repair instructions are provided using AR technology) streamlines maintenance and reduces the need for dedicated on-site repair facilities and personnel. The concept can be taken to another level: experts train inexperienced personnel remotely using AR.

The basic principle of sustainable production: the right measure 

An important rule for environmentally compatible products is that they must meet the specified requirements as precisely as possible — no more, no less. A poorly designed product has a higher risk of failure and additional maintenance. However, a product that has been developed beyond the specified requirements consumes more materials, uses more components, and requires more maintenance over its life.
Digital technologies are unlocking new possibilities for cleaner manufacturing processes and safer, more environmentally friendly products. 
Winston Churchill once said, "If you don't embrace change, it will grab you by the throat." Executives play a critical role in driving a successful strategic transformation—and preventing the market from leaving them behind. The manufacturing industry has shaped technological progress and economic development for more than a century, but it has also been a major contributor to environmental pollution.

Thanks to digital transformation solutions, companies can finally address this paradox. Environmentally friendly and sustainable industrial production can be implemented with the help of innovative technologies.  Manufacturing leaders have proven that embracing sustainable manufacturing can directly drive growth and economic performance.


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Tags: Augmented Reality CAD Industrial Internet of Things Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)

About the Author

Carlos Melgarejo Carlos is a Sr. Content Marketing Specialist for PTC’s PLM technology. He comes from a broadcast journalism background where he developed a love for writing and visual storytelling. He is also passionate about developing creative content and communications, having received a Master’s degree in Marketing. He enjoys the outdoors, the beach, exercising, riding his motorcycle and car restoration.