How can engineers influence ESG outcomes?
Environmental, Social and Governance, ESG for short, has become an increasingly important factor in both the strategy and vision of corporations, and in the technology and vendor selections they make.
In addition to being good for society and the planet, companies with good ESG performance are generally considered as attractive places to work, and ESG assessments are increasingly a part of tender requirements and pre-qualification processes, so it is in everyone’s interest that ESG improvements are addressed at every opportunity. Too often however, ESG is seen as a high-level management issue, but this is not really the case. So, what can engineers do in their day-to-day work that will contribute positively to their company’s and its customers ESG initiatives?
This article, by Marco Zampolli, IIoT Product Sales Director, Advantech, looks at some of the things engineers working in the automation industries might consider as they conceive and implement solutions. Some will be relevant for those working at project level within end user or system integrator organisations, whilst others will help OEM and process engineers looking at individual products or applications.
Don’t over specify
Here the concept of marginal gains is key. Marginal gains is a concept developed in sports, recently most notably in cycling. The idea is that by making a series of small improvements that, individually, have an almost negligible effect, significant performance improvements can emerge when their contributions are combined. The same concept applies to the environmental impact of the decisions engineers make. Every time engineers select or specify a device that uses more power, water or other natural resource during its operation than is necessary, it adds to the overall strain on our planet’s resources. Considered in isolation, the difference may be negligible, but added up over all installations in all industries, the impact is enormous. Imagine if every embedded, desktop and server-side computer consumed 1W less than is currently the case – that’s billions of devices, meaning thousands of megawatts saved, even before we start looking at other electronic devices such as communication switches, radios and so on. There is a valid argument that including additional capacity in any device specification provides protection against future upgrade requirements and so increases the in-service life that in turn has benefits for the end-of-lifetime impact. Here, engineers need to take a realistic approach to avoid over-specification, even allowing for future, unidentified requirements (which, of course, in many applications never actually materialise).
Don’t under specify
Equally important as the real-time resource utilisation of devices, perhaps even more important, is the total lifetime resource cost of ownership. Saving a watt on a devices power consumption is a false economy if the fitted device is so unreliable that a maintenance engineer has to drive out to its location regularly to fix something. Truck rolls are expensive financially and environmentally, so spending more upfront to increase the in-service reliability of the overall system impacts positively on both its commercial and environmental cost. On the computer side, for example, this might involve overlooking commercial grade PCs in favor of industrial grade, fanless equivalents. Equally important is to consider what tools are available to enable remote management, upgrade, and fault diagnosis of the implemented systems. Having and using such tools can significantly reduce both the lifetime environmental impact, and the operational costs, of systems by reducing the need to visit the site, whilst at the same time having positive benefits for security, efficiency and manpower.
Don’t replace devices unnecessarily
One of the big questions when looking at a system upgrade from a sustainability perspective is ‘do you really need to replace everything?’
Disposing of waste has a significant environmental impact, and this is especially true in the electronics industry, which uses many relatively harmful or rare substances in the manufacture of products and assemblies. In the industrial sector there are still a lot of older devices in service, produced at a time when the use of harmful materials was less regulated than today, and it is doubly important that these are dealt with properly.
One of the first things engineers can do when considering an upgrade to a system then, is to assess how many of the legacy devices can be retained. If a device is working adequately, then for as long as it remains in service there is no waste to dispose of, and the industry that is growing out of recycling old electronics will become more effective and more accessible, meaning that when the time to replace the legacy device finally comes, the environmental impact will be smaller.
Instead of replacing an entire system, could some parts be retained? For example, a flowmeter on a pipeline, or a PLC controlling a local factory process might be working perfectly well but be incompatible with a new communications system being implemented. Instead of replacing the legacy device with a new model, thereby creating a disposal issue, an Edge gateway can be used to convert between the communications and data models of the two systems, allowing the legacy device to continue in service.
Retaining legacy devices reduces the capital cost of implementing process improvements and can form the basis of a managed migration strategy, significantly reducing the risks and disruption involved in system upgrades and change-outs.
Of course, eventually devices do come to the end of their service life. This can be for a variety of reasons. Spare parts may be becoming difficult to source, raising the specter of severe disruption should a device fail. The device may not be able to provide some new functionality required, or it might be that newer devices consume so much less energy or other resources to tip the balance of the environmental or financial calculation in favour of replacement. When things get to this stage, the simple option is to replace the device with something more energy efficient that performs the same function, but there are other choices, especially in scenarios where an organisation has already gone down the route of implementing a managed migration using edge intelligence as outlined previously.
Essentially the question is whether some, or all, of the functionality of the old device could be implemented in another, existing, device. For example, a user may be looking to replace an obsolete PLC. Instead of putting a new PLC in its place, the user might instead use any Edge gateway introduced to bridge communications between the legacy PLC and the new system to provide ‘soft PLC’ functionality. This effectively replaces the need for a new hardware device with a software solution, in turn reducing the site power consumption, complexity and future recycling issues.
The idea of using one physical device to perform multiple functions is not only a consideration on brownfield projects where an existing system is being upgraded or replaced, but also just as relevant if a new system is being designed and installed from scratch.
Analysing the overall system requirements and deciding to combine elements, traditionally implemented in discrete devices, into virtual devices within a single hardware item can result in significant reductions in complexity, energy use and installation/maintenance costs. Recent advances in multi-core processors, hypervisors and virtualisation mean that time or mission critical processes and applications can co-exist with, and be given priority over, non-critical applications, with no concerns over competing memory, processor, or other resource requirements. The notion of combining the function of several physical devices into a single edge device with a virtualised environment is already gaining a lot of traction in, for example, electricity substation applications, and it has substantial potential to bring efficiencies to other industries as awareness of the concept grows.
Embrace AI and ML technology
Advances in artificial intelligence (AI), especially those in machine learning (ML) and Edge inference are bringing the cost of implementing and deploying these technologies to the point where they are relevant within the design phase of almost any system or upgrade. The benefits and uses of AI within factory, infrastructure and transportation systems is a broad topic that is the subject of many other articles and much online content. For the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to highlight that AI can enable the continuous monitoring of machines, installations, and processes, identifying negative trends in performance, or out of bounds conditions before they affect operational outcomes, thereby improving yields, utilisation and operational efficiency, all of which have a positive impact from an environmental perspective. AI can also improve the working experience of those interacting with the system, which is good from a social perspective.
In manufacturing, for example, many factory floor tasks are labourious, repetitive, and potentially dangerous. Increasingly technology is transforming these roles. Repetitive factory floor processes such as component tray loading, or transport of components between manufacturing machines carried out by cobots working alongside humans reduce injuries from repetitive movements, handling hazardous materials or working in dangerous environments.
AI coupled to optical systems monitors and controls access to restricted or unsafe areas, limiting access to authorised personnel or vehicles through face recognition or ANPR. Boundary control improves safety by ensuring the shutdown of machines or processes should an unauthorised person enter a hazardous area. Detection and assessment of the number of people in an area feeds into the environmental control systems, optimising the heating, ventilation and lighting for that area in real-time. Similarly, optical inspection, carried out more consistently and accurately by a trained AI inference edge device than by human inspectors, improving yields and therefore good environmentally, elevates the human role from one of repetitive inspection, to one of supervision, quality improvement and problem solving, resulting in higher levels of worker engagement and job satisfaction.
All of these provide benefits not only commercially, but also from a social and governance perspective.
The operational performance of the devices and systems selected is not the only consideration from an environmental perspective. Engineers should also examine their choices from the viewpoint of sustainability. For example, where the devices are manufactured, and what this means in terms of the overall transport impact from raw material to installed system. Users often look at the environmental impact of the last trip the finished goods take but fail to consider the environmental impact the supplier has incurred in bringing together the raw materials needed to manufacture the devices. Often, having manufacture close to the raw materials is a better option for the environment than having a short trip for the finished goods.
How does the manufacturer get the energy they need to make the devices? Are they located where electricity still comes from high-carbon sources, such as coal-fired power stations, or are their supplies from renewable sources? In either case, are they taking their own steps to improve their environmental impact, for example by installing their own solar or wind energy generation? Do their packaging materials come from sustainable sources? What are they doing to reduce the use of hazardous materials in their production processes? All of these are questions that may be difficult to get meaningful answers to, and even harder to compare between different suppliers, but they are still worth asking to get a feel for how much environmental considerations are guiding the thinking of the suppliers being considered.
In this article, we have looked at some of the ways the decisions engineers make influence ESG outcomes, but these are just the tip of the iceberg. Engineers can make a huge contribution to all aspects of their company’s ESG footprint, and indirectly to influence that of their customers and wider society, by considering solutions not only from a technical and commercial viewpoint, but by also including ESG improvement as part of their design criteria. This is especially true in situations where it is not a specified element in any outline design brief. Environmental impact, sustainability, and contribution to social or governance aspects should become integral to engineers everyday thinking, guiding the selection of solutions, components and suppliers, and informing design processes to evolve beyond a box-ticking exercise against a given specification. By challenging specifications and offering alternative solutions which achieve the same end goals with better ESG outcomes, engineers can (and should) have a pivotal and transformative role in the quest for ESG improvement.