Going full circle: Industry 4.0 could play key role in driving the circular economy

Simon Earnshaw, director of production and supply chain in Europe at Air Products

Distribution of gas cylinders can be drastically improved by Industry 4.0 principles (Credit: Shutterstock)
Distribution of gas cylinders can be drastically improved by Industry 4.0 principles (Credit: Shutterstock)

Connectivity, it seems, is the name of the game.

Industry 4.0 and the growing drive for big data analysis, higher levels of automation and joined-up thinking show no sign of dissipating, and rightly so. With the very real promise of greater productivity, improved profitability and reduced costs, the stakes are high. 

What is fascinating however is that for a concept that is so focused on enhanced connectivity, there is one very real connection that has, to date, been missing – the link between Industry 4.0 and the circular economy. Despite both issues attracting their fair share of attention over recent years, there has been very little said about the link between the two. But why? 

My view is that business structure and culture have a significant impact. All too often, those individuals tasked with the development of technology and data capture in a business are isolated from those focused on sustainability. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a new generation of graduates is starting to push back at these traditional structures but there’s still real work to do in improving internal communications.

The case for such change is compelling. Industry 4.0 – specifically the capture of big data and the automation of processes – has real potential to act as an enabler of a ‘closed loop approach’ to business activities. I have witnessed the impact this can have first-hand, as part of my work to drive forward data capture and analysis both within my own organisation but also together with our manufacturing and engineering partners. 

It’s a gas, gas, gas

Industrial gases and Industry 4.0 might not seem like natural bedfellows, but in fact the filling and distribution of industrial gas cylinders is your classic circular economy, and it’s one that can be dramatically improved by intelligent application of the principles of Industry 4.0. 

Compressed-gas cylinders that have been in use for several decades are still being refurbished, retested and reused. Nothing is wasted, they simply keep recirculating, with the cylinders often worth many times more than the product inside them. 

By introducing telemetry technology, we are starting to be able to capture, transmit and track location and consumption data. Doing so optimises the sequencing and frequency of deliveries, in turn reducing fuel consumption. Industrial Internet of Things telemetry units on gas cylinders themselves make them the ultimate reusable container. Equipped with the data they transmit it allows realtime insight into consumption rates, supports greater productivity via just-in-time refills, detects leaks, and incentivises the prompt return of cylinders and their redistribution.

Uniting Industry 4.0 with the circular economy in this way can be hugely powerful. There’s been such great excitement around data capture that it’s easy to forget that, for any meaningful change, this data must be analysed, interpreted and applied to real business processes. 

Cutting waste

The time for data capture for its own sake has passed. This year will see a renewed focus on the business case and justification for this investment – the delivery of a truly circular economy provides just that. After all, regulation around energy efficiency and CO2 emissions is increasingly preoccupying manufacturers and engineers alike. 

Could Industry 4.0 have the potential to eliminate waste altogether? It’s hard to say, but one thing is for certain – new data, technologies and analytical tools can support more sustainable production, the measurement of progress against sustainability targets and evidence-based decision making. It’s time to apply a more joined-up approach.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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