Comment: How to avoid getting stuck at the pilot phase of decarbonisation

By harnessing digital technologies, manufacturers can create factories and supply chains that are green, lean and equipped to deliver what industries need now and in the future, says Gareth Hall, a chartered engineer and managing consultant at Vendigital.


The need to improve operational efficiency and sustainability have long been priorities for high-value manufacturers in the aerospace and automotive industries, but many are finding that projects stall at proof-of-concept or pilot stage. What can businesses in these sectors do to kick-start their decarbonisation journey?

Research conducted by the World Economic Forum has found that over 70 per cent of global manufacturing businesses that invest in digital practices fail to move beyond pilot phase. Does that mean decarbonisation strategies are destined to fail or could manufacturers be doing more to ensure they are ready to scale?

For aerospace and defence OEMs and other suppliers, the push to decarbonise factories, processes and supply chains has come at a particularly challenging time. As well as losing skills and demand capacity due to prolonged periods of downtime linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, many businesses are now facing increased demand-side pressures to ramp up production and recover lost margin. Any plans to decarbonise must therefore deliver enhanced profitability and flexibility while also demonstrating continuous progress against the company’s sustainability goals and embedded strategy.

Barriers to decarbonisation

To remain competitive in a more carbon-conscious world, manufacturers can’t afford to do nothing. They must prioritise decarbonisation, but knowing where and how to start is not a straightforward matter. There exists a high level of complexity in a volatile market, where geopolitical constraints are constantly shifting. As well as facing these challenges, many manufacturers may lack the skills needed to identify and prioritise projects that will deliver the most value to the business.

Process manufacturers know that significant value can be generated through the application of lean principles and the improved visibility that comes from digitalisation, but now they need to leverage this in order to decarbonise their operations and supply chains too.

Factory of the future thinking

There is an opportunity for businesses to  inform their decision-making through building a digital plan of their factory – its processes, production lines and supply chains – looking for opportunities to reduce carbon emissions. Digital twins can be used to home in on energy-intensive processes or pieces of machinery to enable a more efficient, low-carbon solution. These digital twins can then be used to test alternative solutions before a capital investment is made and build more robust business cases.

By using technology, Siemens and Severn Trent Water are creating the world’s first carbon neutral wastewater plant. This is an example of a project that harnesses data from various operational systems via digital twin technology to reduce  emissions.

When working with aerospace and defence manufacturers to improve process efficiency, reduce cost or increase capacity, it is common for collaborative teams to identify opportunities for carbon reduction at the same time. For example, when improving a factory layout, the project team may identify opportunities to reduce the raw material used in a machining process, which can in turn reduce power and chemical consumption.

Data for sustainability

Even with robust plans in place, a lack of data transparency can cause projects to stall at proof-of-concept stage; preventing them from achieving the scale needed to deliver any lasting benefit. Without reliable data-based tools, manufacturers are unable to prioritise projects and make the right decisions about where to invest to change things for the better. Businesses increase the chance of demonstrating value when they embed sustainability, data and technology within their transformation plans.

Through the use of data, businesses are collaborating with their supply chains to reduce carbon in their processes while others are looking to nearshore critical supply lines and facilitate a switch from air to sea freight services; reducing transportation costs and lowering carbon emissions. Exploring ways to minimise waste through greater use of recycling and/or the re-use of by-products can also help to improve process efficiency while cutting the factory’s whole-life carbon footprint.

By harnessing digital technologies and investing in the right technologies supported by people with the right skills, manufacturers can create factories and supply chains that are green, lean and equipped to deliver what industries need now and in the future.

Gareth Hall is a chartered engineer and managing consultant at management consultancy, Vendigital.