Intelligent automation • Reshoring • Sustainability • Viewpoints

Automated Microfactories are the Future of Sustainable Production

By Amar Hanspal, CEO, Bright Machines 

One of the most devastating consequences of industrial globalization over the last 30 years has been its impact on the health of our planet. Manufacturing, to this day, is one of the environment’s greatest threats – with the massive carbon footprints of centralized factories creating more waste, air and land pollution than any other industry. Today, manufacturers alone are responsible for a whopping 30% of the nation’s energy consumption. Fortunately, technology – in the form of intelligent automation – plays a vital role in diminishing the negative effects of globalization and changing the industry’s overall environmental impact.

Historically, industrial automation has not been a particularly sustainable form of production. When we think of industrial automation, we typically think of large, expensive machines that take up space in factories. But a new form of automation – intelligent automation – leverages advanced technology like software, computer vision and adaptive robotics to create smaller, energy-efficient factories. These “microfactories” are nimble and flexible, taking up less space and providing a far more scalable automation solution than previous generations.

Less defects, less landfill 

Many assembly tasks require a great deal of precision and dexterity. Imagine, for example, a tiny screw being drilled into a circuit board the size of a postage stamp. It just so happens that these are the types of tasks that are the least automated today. The reliance on human hands to perform these tasks leads to critical quality issues, which ultimately contributes to more waste from defected parts. A manufacturer of a popular single cup coffee maker was relying on five human operators per unit in the assembly process, who often struggled to align two important parts resulting in damaged pieces and a relatively low yield rate of just 60%. The introduction of a microfactory, however, was able to improve that yield to 98%. By increasing quality and lowering defect rates, intelligent automation significantly cuts back on scrap and harmful waste produced by factories. 

Localized production results in lower carbon footprint 

Manufacturers’ reliance on large, centralized factories located halfway around the world represents one of the sector’s biggest threats, due to the land and air pollution that results from shipping goods across the world. Today, 90% of global trade is seaborne and this shipping activity emits 938 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. By enabling a distributed network of smaller, energy-efficient factories, intelligent automation allows manufacturers to build closer to where their customers are. By enabling localized production, microfactories also lower each factory’s individual carbon footprint by requiring less miles traveled for product distribution. 

The winds of change are in the planet’s favor. The pandemic has accelerated automation adoption within the manufacturing sector for its ability to create more resilient production. In doing so, will create a positive trend of more nimble and sustainable factories. In fact, as of December 2020 searches for ‘automation equipment’ were up 332% year over year. If it continues on this path (and I suspect it will), we may just look back at this past year as the pivotal inflection point when manufacturing finally shifted away from being one of the environment’s biggest contributors to waste and pollution. 

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