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Can Industry 4.0 Drive Sustainability Goals?

April 20, 2022
A study reviewed empirical data and surveyed companies from three countries

Industry 4.0 needs more political clout if it is to realize its full potential, say the authors of a recent study published in Sustainable Production and Consumption.

The Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), Potsdam, Germany, carried out the study to investigate the potential of Industry 4.0 to support the decarbonization and dematerialization objectives needed for industry to meet sustainable development goals (SDGs). It also generated empirical data to “reflect on the few and ambiguous assumptions about the effects of Industry 4.0 on environmental sustainability currently existing in the scientific literature.” The IASS is a research and consultancy group focused on helping organizations and the United Nations (U.N.) meet their SDGs.

Lead author Grischa Beier and his co-workers started their study knowing little empirical evidence exists to substantiate the assumption that digitalization will make industrial production more sustainable. Beier has a background in mechanical and systems engineering and heads up the IASS research group on digitalization and impacts on sustainability.

Their literature search found a number of studies predicting Industry 4.0 will enhance energy and material efficiency while also accelerating the integration of renewable energy forms in industrial manufacturing. At the same time, however, they discovered a growing body of literature urging caution about assuming sustainability benefits are a foregone conclusion. Rather, they need to be actively integrated with the digitalization strategies of the respective companies.

Other research suggested if the adoption of digital technologies isn’t steered in the right direction, it could make production more resource-dependent, as opposed to more environmentally sustainable and climate-friendly.

To test Industry 4.0’s ability to support decarbonization and dematerialization, Beier’s team surveyed company representatives in China, Brazil and Germany; all three countries regard digitalization as an important driver for economic development, and have government strategies in place to develop policies and investment needed for its success.

The team canvassed representatives across a range of industrial sectors and company sizes. Their findings are a mixed bag.

For example, the majority of industry representatives contacted expect Industry 4.0 technologies will have a positive impact on their companies’ environmental sustainability. Companies in Germany and Brazil with more than 5,000 employees have the most positive overall expectations.

On the other hand, actual experience with digitalization — in terms of resource efficiency and energy consumption — does not entirely support such optimism.

“Our findings suggest expectations are overly optimistic in companies that still have little actual experience with Industry 4.0 technologies. Companies that reported higher levels of Industry 4.0 implementation had more moderate expectations with respect to actual energy savings,” explains Beier, adding that this validates other studies which found little evidence to support expectations of achieving significant savings across the board.

More positively, Industry 4.0 helps companies better align production with demand; companies with a high level of digitalization are well-positioned to improve their sustainability performance in other areas. In fact, the greater a company’s digitalization, the better their ability to align production with actual demand.

In addition, improved digitalization increases companies’ willingness to align production schedules with the availability of renewable electricity. According to the researchers, these so-called demand response schemes are an important prerequisite for the stabilization and efficient use of future renewable energy systems.

While the authors acknowledge their results paint a mixed picture, they say it is clear the widespread uptake of Industry 4.0 offers opportunities to improve environmental sustainability. They believe their findings will most help those involved with implementing Industry 4.0 to better understand the trends that affect it. However, they caution implementation must be critically evaluated against the U.N. SDGs.

“The mere digitalization of production processes will not suffice to advance the transition towards a more sustainable economy. To take full advantage of the potentials of digitalization for corporate sustainability management, it must be flanked by supporting government regulations and incentives, including the establishment of binding targets for saving energy and materials,” adds Beier.

Only then will a digitalized industrial production be able to serve people without harming the environment, he concludes.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's editor at large. You can email him at [email protected].

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