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A Tech-Forward Approach to Sustainable Manufacturing

Software-defined manufacturing is the key to reducing emissions, waste, and resource consumption.  

Our world will always rely on manufacturers to produce the goods and materials we need to keep our economies and businesses running. Yet, those same manufacturing operations are severely impacting our planet’s health. Physical industries, including industrial manufacturing, account for 75% of global greenhouse gas submissions, and CO2 emissions released by global fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes rose by roughly 35% over the last 20 years.

It’s abundantly clear that manufacturing has a profound impact on the environment and that it’s time for a significant overhaul of traditional processes now that other options exist. Change is here and now — and the good news is that, when embraced, it will benefit the planet, our economies, and our businesses.

A Worldwide Wake-up Call

There’s been a worldwide wake-up call to do better for our planet, and it’s demanding that organizations implement changes for a healthier, more prosperous future.

For example, businesses now have more focus on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues than ever before, across all sectors, with investors, partners, and customers having certain requirements of their vendors to abide by specific ESG protocols. They’re no longer going with the most convenient option but rather sourcing materials and partnering with manufacturers that prioritize sustainability throughout their operations. A PwC survey showed that about half of investors would be willing to divest from companies that didn’t take sufficient action on ESG issues.

Customers aren’t only demanding change in how manufacturers produce but what they produce as well. A survey of C-suite manufacturing leaders showed that more than half of respondents feel that, of all the evolving customer needs, the growing demand for sustainable products is having the largest impact on operations.

Manufacturers that are feeling pressured, even panicked, to evolve their operations quickly need to lean on modern technology to help them navigate the change.


This is a big change for the manufacturing industry, which has negative implications for the environment by its very nature. Take it all into account: Many manufacturers have global operations with a majority of their factories in Asia, where labor is cheaper. Goods are mass-produced, which requires exorbitant amounts of energy and materials, then they’re shipped back to the U.S. and transported by trucks to the customer, who (in many cases) still isn’t the end consumer. The global supply chain is incredibly long and complex, and the last few years have shown us that it’s neither resilient nor sustainable. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Manufacturers that are feeling pressured, even panicked, to evolve their operations quickly – who are overwhelmed with tackling ESG, supply chain, and digital evolution challenges all at once – need to lean on modern technology to help them navigate the change.

A Sustainable, Software-Defined Future

The manufacturing industry’s impact on the environment is a big problem, and it will take a big shift in production to solve it. That’s where the power of automation comes in. With incredible, fast-paced technological advancements over the last couple of decades, and especially within the last several years, manufacturers have more tools and technologies at their disposal than ever before — many of which help to transform manufacturing from a slow, stiff, resource-intensive industry to one that’s fast, flexible, and eco-friendly.

These tools and technologies (i.e., automation, robotics, virtual reality, digital twins) can and already are helping both established and up-and-coming manufacturing organizations implement new processes and approaches to production that lead to more sustainable operations. But which solutions are the most impactful? There’s a lot of noise in the market, with the global smart manufacturing market size expected to reach a valuation of USD 727 billion by 2030, and it can be difficult to understand which approach is best suited for each organization—even each factory, as needs may differ based on location and/or production requirements.

Manufacturers who move production closer to the end consumer and build or revamp factories with intelligent automation can reduce overproduction.


The North Star for any manufacturer ready to increase efficiency, improve quality, and introduce greater sustainability is a software-defined approach. Software-defined manufacturing combines logic and intelligence in software rather than hardware to create a more flexible environment that can help address decades-old economically and environmentally damaging operational processes. This approach leverages intelligent automation solutions that have cloud, machine vision, and artificial intelligence capabilities built in from the start, which introduce a whole new level of elasticity and resiliency into the production line and onto the factory floor.

Here’s what manufacturers can achieve with a software-defined manufacturing approach:

  • Reduced waste and carbon footprint: Intelligent automation regularly assesses areas of production that can be adjusted so that manufacturers can better understand which resources or materials they need more or less of and where maintenance is needed – before it’s needed – to help reduce faulty products that result in waste.

Additionally, manufacturers who move production closer to the end consumer and build or revamp factories with intelligent automation can reduce overproduction. Instead of production based on unreliable forecasting, for example, manufacturers can produce-to-order based on local market demand. This cuts down on wasted, unwanted products, but it also helps to reduce the operation’s carbon footprint. Closer-to-home production and localized supply chains inherently result in less shipping and transportation mileage, reduced waste, and minimized energy consumption.

  • Greater flexibility and efficiency: Factories with intelligent automation are more flexible and efficient. These solutions use programmable assembly lines that enable faster product changeovers when the market demands it, and can accommodate multiple types of product SKUs on a single line. Lines are modular, reconfigurable, and reusable over time and can therefore achieve higher utilization. When all of these components come together on the factory floor, manufacturers can better pivot to accommodate increasingly complex demands without overexerting or wasting their resources.
  • New revenue streams: Manufacturers searching for new ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle may be able to introduce additional revenue streams in the process. For example, if a manufacturer invests in technology that improves the complex, error-prone disassembly and end-of-life processing of technology solutions such as servers, they could turn around and sell still-viable pieces and components to global technologies that want spares in their inventory. By doing so, they avoid contributing to the 6 million tons of annual e-waste (and rising) that ends up in a landfill. Modern technology helps turn the seemingly impossible disassembly process into a revenue growth opportunity, which happens to benefit the environment as well.

The future of manufacturing will need to include a sustainable, software-defined approach. Organizations that embrace the new tools and technologies that contribute to more efficient, eco-friendly operations will have a smoother, faster pathway to near-term and long-term success. Their businesses will benefit, and our planet will benefit — it’s a win-win.  M

About the author:


Sean Murray is VP, Customer Success at Bright Machines, Inc.

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